My high school English teacher Mary Z. Greer died on Sunday. I wrote this a couple of years ago, and now I’m doubly glad I did. Thank you, Mrs. Greer. —DM
My writer friend Paul Engleman says that one of the very best things about publishing a book is that it gives you a moment to thank all the people who helped or inspired you along the way.
The trouble is, you’re often only partially aware of who helped and inspired you along the way, and how. And some of the people who helped you in the most understated ways, helped you the most.
My English teacher in my freshman year of high school was not the Robin Williams character in Dead Poets Society. Mrs. Greer had prematurely gray hair and she was warm but also kind of reserved, as I remember.
There was a deep-down confidence, though, that gave me the impression when we read To Kill a Mockingbird and she told us what the author wanted us to think about Boo Radley, she had it on good authority. Like maybe she knew Harper Lee personally. (Doesn’t she look like she might?)
There were things on Mrs. Greer’s classroom walls that weren’t on the walls of other teachers in this WASPy little Ohio town called Hudson. The abolitionist John Brown had lived there, and it had been a stop on the Underground Railroad; but there was only one Black person in my high school class. And my Democrat mother complained that all the liberals in town could fit into the phone booth in Saywell’s Drug Store.
And yet Mrs. Greer had a Pete Seeger concert poster on the wall. I knew Bob Seger. But who was Pete Seeger?
Mrs. Greer had another poster on the wall. This was not a popular sentiment in Hudson, Ohio during the Reagan administration, and I wonder if she took some guff about it from young Alex P. Keatons, or during parent-teacher conferences.
I remember two things most personally about Mrs. Greer’s class:
Diagramming sentences with the supreme confidence of a mathematician, and realizing that was as close as I would ever get to technical mastery of anything.
And, once, Mrs. Greer telling me in her straightforward way, that maybe I should think about a career in writing.
Which I hadn’t been doing, to that point, despite the fact that my parents were writers. (Because they were writers?)
Mrs. Greer didn’t rave about my writing, didn’t tell me I was the second coming of Ian Frazier (another Hudson product). Just said I ought to think about it, as a possibility.
It meant something, coming from a third party. “When an adult names you, before the wax is completely dry,” writes Rebecca McCarthy, about being called a poet as a teenager by the writer Norman Maclean, “the name becomes part of who you are.”
And so, by the time I applied to Kent State University and declared a major, English, it was. Not because my parents wanted me to do it, but because at least one of my English teachers had suggested it.
To promote An Effort to Understand, I’m going on radio in Cleveland and in Kent this month, and doing a virtual book talk at Hudson Library & Historical Society in May. I thought on Monday night to reach out to Mrs. Greer on Facebook.
I told her I’d become a writer, after all. And that I remembered the “bake sale” poster. And that I have a Pete Seeger poster on my office wall. And that my 17-year-old daughter is named Scout.
Mary Z. Greer was delighted. She read one of my blog posts, and confirmed that I am a good writer. She ordered my book. She’s going to read it and listen to my radio interviews and we’re going to talk on the phone before the Hudson Library book talk. I hope she’ll come on and ask me a difficult question, like she used to do in class.
It’s often said of teachers that they’ll never know the influence they had on their students.
Often, the students never know the influence their teachers had, either. But when we catch a glimpse, we should let our teachers know, in full.
Boy, does it feel good.
Postscript: I don’t remember these classroom rules, but Mary sent this along yesterday, and it squares with the Mrs. Greer I remember.
P.P.S. And as part of her comment here, Mary Greer demonstrates what a fine writer she is herself. “Your memories remind me of how our kids are half asleep and half on fire—how we need to help them wake up gently and at the same time, protect them from scorching!”