Published DateIt was with a heavy heart I received the news that Mr. Sargent, my former English teacher from Gilford High School, had died. Memory and distance can trick the brain into freezing time altogether, and this can be particularly true when it comes to teachers and friends we leave behind after high school. I hadn't seen Mr. Sargent since my graduation decades ago, so in my head he's still the same as he was then, flattop haircut and short-sleeved dress shirts, a different striped tie for every day of the week.
Mr. Sargent didn't look like an English teacher, he looked like a math teacher or an engineer or like an actual military sergeant — the kind who would flip a quarter onto to your bunk and give you two weeks of latrine duty just because it didn't bounce high enough off the blanket.
If you didn't know him — and I definitely didn't that first day of 11th grade English — you'd expect him to be exacting and severe, the kind of guy who'd cut you no slack, no matter what.
It didn't help that while the other English teachers at Gilford got to serve up "The Great Gatsby" or "Catcher in the Rye" or "Lord of the Flies" — books with enough intrigue or violence or adolescent angst to make any lesson slightly more manageable — Mr. Sargent had the trying task of teaching early American Lit. The curriculum consisted of Pilgrim journals, Puritan sermons (mainly of the fire and brimstone variety), Emerson essays, and, worst of all, Henry Thoreau's "Walden", a book that seemed just as torturous to a 16-year-old as calculus or SATs or a gym class first thing in the morning.
And we didn't even have a proper classroom — we were shoehorned into a tiny, windowless space in a corner of the library that probably had been storage at some point or an office where the librarian hid to catch up on reading the Life or Outdoor magazines that never seemed to remain on the racks. There were no desks, so we all just sat on the floor in a semi-circle around Mr. Sargent, who sat in one of the only available chairs, crossed his legs, balanced whichever thankless text we currently had to read, and began to teach.
And we all know what happened next, right? Even Mr. Sargent would have to agree that this is one of the oldest stories in the book, whether it was part of his early American Lit curriculum or not. I know I wasn't the only one who ended up scrawling Emerson quotes on my notebook — the most popular was "Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist" — or the only one who grudgingly admitted Thoreau had some pretty good points. (I was probably the only one who tacked a poem on my bedroom wall by the Puritan Reverend Michael Wigglesworth, but that's a story for another time.) Emerson and Thoreau were rebel punks and Wigglesworth was possibly the original Goth—as for the deceptively meek Emily Dickinson? She was easily the trickiest of the bunch.
I'm not sure how Mr. Sargent led us to a place where we could find value in what we read, where we could somehow connect words that were centuries old to our own world of Joe Strummer and John Hughes and the all-too enticing anti-Thoreau sentiment of "Greed is Good" from Wall Street. I think his gift had something to do with his sense of humor — this wry little smile he'd get once we wore ourselves out with complaints and finally happened upon the truth that he knew was there all along — but more to do with a deep and genuine kindness. His smile didn't mean he was laughing at us—though we sure deserved that more often than not—it was just benevolent amusement that it took us so darn long to figure everything out.
And I wonder now if we were shoehorned into that tiny room in Gilford High School by design rather than lack of space. It wasn't much smaller than Thoreau's cabin had been, and it certainly was spare. There was just us on the floor with our notebooks and pencils, and Mr. Sargent sitting in his chair, legs crossed, book on his lap.
I suppose you could say that in addition to having this frozen-in-time image of Mr. Sargent from my 11th grade English class so long ago, memory and distance also have allowed me to idealize his impact on me as a writer and teacher and an ever-evolving nonconformist, but I really don't think so. With that vintage flattop and a different striped tie for every day of the week, he was probably the first real nonconformist I ever knew; Emerson and Thoreau would be proud. I'm proud too, that I could call him my teacher.
(Kate Flaherty is a teacher and writer from Gilford.)