I didn’t always want to be an English teacher. In fact, I’m not technically qualified to be teaching this subject at all. However, when I consider the teachers who left their fingerprints on me the most, they were all English teachers. Perhaps it was their encouragement and wisdom which indirectly guided me to this place I’m at now. Perhaps they left impressions on me that I didn’t even realize at the time.
Mr. Sawaya was one such impression-maker. He was probably in his late sixties with a scruffy white beard and a full head of shockingly white hair which he typically covered with a fedora. When I picture him, I always envision his tan fedora. This was an era before celebrities made the them trendy and I had never seen anyone else don such a hat; much less teach a class in one. His room was decorated simply with a few jazz posters and as we walked in each day, we were met with saxophones and the songs of Miles Davis softly swooning from Mr. Sawaya’s 1980’s boombox . He’d be perched up on his stool, swaying to the blues, clearly feeling the music as we entered his world and swung our backpacks and our silliness to the floor. I always felt like I was entering a poetry reading or some exclusive club when I entered his room. A club for intellectuals only. Mr. Sawaya had that effect on us all; he made us feel like intellectuals. He never spoke down to us and used such long words that I honestly wondered if he made some of them up. I felt smarter just listening to him.
He always spoke in a slow, soft manner, and he spoke with such rhythm that it was as if he was singing his sentences. I sat in the back and often had to strain to hear his words. But I’d always lean forward and strain because I didn’t want to miss a thing. I felt like gems were pouring forth from his ancient, tired lips and I scrawled notes with passion, not wanting to forget a single word he uttered. I’m not sure exactly why he commanded such respect from me. I often slept during Trigonomtry and doodled during Economics, but I listened fervently, with rapt attention to Mr. Sawaya. He clearly knew so much about the world and about writing and I was amazed that he would choose to spend his time with us.
I never shared my personal life with Mr. Sawaya. He wasn’t like a father to me or even a grandfather. But I think I first learned to think in his class. I’m pretty sure I was just faking it up until then. He taught us to form our own opinions, even if they were different from his. And then he showed us how to support those opinions, however misguided they might have been. We read Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina in his class and I remember feeling terribly inept as I read them. Inept because these pieces were so rich and so deep and so much of it was over my head. Listening to him explain the complexity of the themes in these stories, I realized for the first time that I had only been operating on the surface level all my life. I never even knew I could go deeper until listening to Sawaya sing his pearls of wisdom while perched on his stool. He unlocked an entire world for me, opened a door I never had known even existed.
He also gave me my first C on a paper. C minus actually. It was on The Catcher and the Rye and I still remember the shame I felt when he passed them back. At first I grew defensive and angry. “Doesn’t he know that I am an A student?” But then I read his comments, swallowed my pride, and realized that I had indeed written a C paper. C minus actually. I had written a generic essay lacking any originality and Mr. Sawaya had called me out on it. Sure the commas and periods were in the right places, but I hadn’t done the hard part and really thought about what I was writing. I just turned in some grammatically correct slop to get a grade. And Sawaya saw right through it.
He’s retired now but I wish I could thank him for that. I want to thank him for that C minus, thank him for seeing past my pretenses. I want to thank him for opening my eyes, for helping me to see myself and my world more clearly. I want to thank him for teaching me think, for showing me that I hadn’t actually been thinking before – just regurgitating what I had heard. I want to thank for him for forcing me to think on a deeper level and write on a higher plane. I may not wear fedoras or have a love for jazz music, but I truly hope that I can do the same for my students.