I teach. I’ve taught for 42 years. I’m a member of the Fiction Writing Department at Columbia College Chicago. I lead workshops at Bloom and Bloom Trail High Schools in Chicago Heights School District 206. I have several students I work with via the mails. I’ve taught at the World Horror Convention and The Green Lake Christian Writing Conference and at Borderlands Boot Camp for Novelists and Short Story Writers and at the Midwest Literary Festival and the Suburban Prairie Literary Festival and … Lots of (let me use the academic term) venues.
And sometimes I get reminders of why I teach. It’s about “as you were taught, go ye and teach others … ” (which sounds Biblical, but I think I made that one up.) It’s about “those that can do, teach” (which is my variant of a particularly noxious cliché). It’s about, “Yeah, that week’s work will pay for a vintage guitar” (The workman is worthy of his hire. See Matthew 10:10; Luke 10:7; 1 Corinthians 9:414; 2 Corinthians 11:8–and also the Elderly Instruments catalog).
But mostly it’s about, well, for me, it’s what V_____, a former student, speaks of in a recent e-mail.
So, thanks to V____, you will find below Mort’s answer to “Why do you teach?” I’ve had to drop a name or two for reasons you should be able to discern, but the words that follow are hers–and it’s hearing words like hers that keep the teacher hat on this balding head.
Dear Mr. Castle,
I have followed your career with great interest with the advent of the Internet; and have always bragged to people “in the know” who are in the arts, about “my” teacher who changed my life.
I do not know if you even will be able to place my face with all the number of eager faces looking for approval back during those writers workshop days. I was shy. I was sacred of my own shadow. My home life was in such chaos that we were in danger of foster placement. Most of all, I had no talent. I was slightly overweight, klutzy, and did not fit any cliques. I always was on the fringe of acceptance of one group or the other, but either I would do something to screw-up myself, by choosing the wrong jeans for example, or I morally could not condone some casual teenage cruelty.
Just your average teenage hormonal poetry geek, right? The difference was that you were the only person I had met who ever took the time to treat me as an equal. You told me I was a writer. You gave me a voice.
I know you must get this type of note often.
I just want you to know I was the girl who you told who would have a book in 10 years.
You helped me get a poem published that year through a young writers contest and I won first prize. I finally found something that I was good at. I had always loved to read, but now I knew that my love of books had given me a great gift, a foundation to start from. You will never know the self-confidence your class gave me.
At the end of the semester, a student of the class, P_____ _____, died. Our class was an unusual group of creative young people, artsy, jocks, nerds, freaks. P____ was tortured all during his years at school. He was an odd bird. Today he would have either been on Zoloft for social anxiety, or, given the extreme cruelty of other kids, may have been a trench coat mafia kid. I remember him showing me his work, all the freaky guys did, and wanting me to really like it. It was very dark. My writing was dark, too, just on the opposite page of DSM. I knew he was a really troubled kid. You must have seen so much in the writing of your students. And all before the age of better living thru chemistry and political correctness, where you would have been sued for not turning in a troubled teen’s fantasy writing.
Anyway, I remember when they made the announcement (of his death) … it was in our class. Some of the Jesus freaks were being very pious, as was their right, and other people were saying nice things and how horrible it was. I still remember that I told them that they knew that they had been cruel to him for years. I told them they were too late. He was better off in heaven, because they had already been so mean he was ruined.
I was never the type to talk like that. I can still see you looking at me. If you were stunned by my extreme display of emotion or you were thinking the same, I was never sure. I’ve spent most of my life defending or making sure people like P_____ were safe and cared for. I was always scared as a young kid, never felt safe. When I was older I could see it in others and it broke my heart. You know about gaydar? I have inner radar for people on the edge.
Mr. Castle. I am 46 now, and you are still the person I would name as the person who has had the most influence on my life. The gift you gave me was more than just the wisdom of basic writing techniques, it was in giving into the creative sprit that has to come out. The night I wrote one of my poems I had taken a bottle of aspirin. Following the tradition of all the greats–fine line between genius and madness, etc, I quickly made myself throw up and never told anyone. If I had not had writing as an outlet, not giving into the dark waves of sadness that followed me in my twenties and thirties, I would have drowned. So, in a way, you tossed me my life preserver. Whenever I felt that life was tough, or that I had not lived up to my life plan, I would think, I have some talent, Mr. Castle said I was the real deal. And funny thing even then, I knew you were right. I don’t think if any one else had taught the class that I would have cared about their opinion. Getting that note in the margins from you or the comment in class- I would hold my breath as you would read our work– your opinion counted because you were the real deal. I knew the difference between posers and artists by then.
Mr. Castle, you were my first introduction to sophistication, hip, avant-garde wit. Too cool for school, you were like a hippie Mort Sahl or less manic Lenny Bruce crossed with Mr. Kotter and perhaps a little Leon Redbone thrown in for good measure. You could tell you loved the kids but you were like a caged tiger in the classroom. How cool, that in your own way, you seem to have made your way as a real working writer. Lucky guy. You deserve it-you sure paid the dues. I do recall you had a very pretty wife, and had the typical late seventies post-hippie artist type life. I hope you still do. I can see by the numerous links on the net that you have touched so many lives, so once again thank you for being a part of my happy memories, and continued inspiration.
I know that you have many honors after your name. Pulitzer Prize, nomination, the high praise of your fellow horror writers, holy cow, you could have your own artist colony and there would be a waiting list of eager apostles.
I just wish there was an award for saving a young girl from herself, giving her the courage to explore the arts, an as result, learning that there was an entire world out there beyond the suburbs. That if you had a good mind that the world could open up to you, even if you to fight to get there,
All because of one class, with one special man. You.
Your grateful student,
PS. One day I will write that book.
I am feeling very creative these days, must be that 2012 end of the world pressure to publish or perish.