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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

You really just never know what’s happening in a student’s head.

I got my first full-time teaching job around 1990, a split position in a New Jersey high school, with one eighth-grade class in the middle school down the suburban road. There were maybe fifteen students in the room, and I still remember three of them pretty well. Apparently one of them remembers me too.

This email appeared in my inbox last spring:

“There is little chance you’ll recall, but you were my 8th grade English teacher back at Edison Intermediate School in Westfield, NJ. Your class was one of the places I learned to fall in love with literature and literacy, particularly developing as a writer. It stayed with me, and it helped guide me towards work as a journalist and now an educator.  I’ve always wanted to say thank you.

“I have a number of memories from your class – for example, our acting out Romeo and Juliet – but what I remember most is that you encouraged me to see myself as a writer and to write about what I wanted – even if my 8th-grade self mainly wanted to write gory stories.  😊

“I’m reaching out because I’m about to publish a book on middle and high-school literacy instruction, and I wanted to send you a copy as a way of thanking you. It’s a small gesture, but I hope it signals my lasting appreciation for the difference you made in my life.”

I responded:

“What a pleasure to hear from you! I do in fact remember you—you and only two other students from that class, so take that as a compliment. That was my first year teaching too, so an especially important one for me too. You really never know what kind of impact you have on students, so it’s very kind of you to contact me after all of these years. I’d meant to do the same for an influential high school teacher I’d had, but never did. Honestly, it’s incredible that I had any influence on you, let alone the one you describe below. And it sounds like you’ve been up to many impressive things—I would be delighted to have a copy of your book…. I look forward to reading it, and a huge congratulations to you on the publication.”

And Steve responded:

“You know, years back when I was at WHS, they announced you’d moved away. I went to the office to ask for your address to write you a thank you note, but I chickened out. I’m glad to be able to correct that so many years later.

“I’m so happy I get to share a copy of this with you.  If you ever make it back to the NYC area, let me know!  My wife and I bought a home in Maplewood, so not too far from the city (or Westfield, for that matter).”

Over the summer, Stephen Chiger and Paul Bambrick-Santoyo’s Love & Literary: A Practical Guide for Grades 5-12 to Finding the Magic in Literature arrived in my mailbox.

Steve taught high school English for a decade, winning the 2015 Educator of the Year award from the New Jersey council of Teachers of English, and he’s now a director of literacy for Uncommon Schools, training thousands of other teachers. Which is to say he has far far surpassed me. And his practical guide is NOT the kind of textbook that was available when I was getting my masters and teaching accreditation over three decades ago.

The introduction opens with a sample class discussion of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, with students probing whether Offred had a choice to have sex with the commander. It’s at a level of conversation I strive for in my college seminars. The first chapter continues with an epigraph and then book excerpt by Toni Morrison, before contrasting two 11th grade reading lists. The first looks a lot like the 1980s-era curriculum I read (or, alas, skimmed) as a high schooler: Hardy, Homer, Steinbeck, Wordsworth, Dickens, Shakespeare. Steve and Paul suggest using the equally rigorous second list: Hurston, Homer, Lahiri, Kaminisky, Allende, Baldwin, Shakespeare. Graphic memoirists Alison Bechdel and Marjane Satrapi earn mentions and an excerpt too.

The tone of the guide is pleasantly complex: it combines inspirational directives (“if you want students to grow, nourish them with challenging texts”) with no-nonsense practicality (“Asking students to read for claims presupposes a philosophy that we want to name: all texts–from Instagram posts to Victorian novels–make arguments”). It bridges those two poles with an impressive array of example lessons, providing both nuts-and-bolts specifics (“Slow down and reread–increase your annotations to every 2-3 lines”) and overarching aspiration (“Great discourse often feels magical to the observer, but there are no tricks at play. Skilled teachers know it takes loads of preparation for a discussion to run like clockwork”).

I could continue, but I feel both indirectly narcistic (is all my praise of Steve’s hard work just round-about self-congratulation?) and retroactively inadequate (the portrait of 6th-grade teacher Angela Thomas reveals just how much I was NOT doing back when Steve was a student in my classroom). Still, there are probably worse emotional check-and-balance combinations than pride and chagrin. And leaning into the pride just a little longer, I happily imagine myself in a long line of folks evoked in the Acknowledgements:

“We would also like to thank every teacher, professor, mentor, friend, and family member who pushed or nurtured us. It’s an admittedly long list, and we are both the better for it.”

I don’t actually remember teaching Romeo and Juliet in Steve’s class, but I do recall the open-topic creative-writing assignments. I suspect middle-school Steve was still mentally immersed in the Poe unit that preceded them. He has since clearly moved beyond “gory stories.”

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