Lessons From Senior English

IMG_0292I’d like to take a moment today to look back on a person who has been a positive influence in my life.   To do so, I need to rewind to my days at Harrisonburg High School.  I suppose high school is a turbulent time for many young adults.  It is an opportunity to cultivate new friendships, discover one’s interests, and ideally learn a lot both academically and about the world.

Unfortunately, my early days in high school weren’t all that positive.  Although I was very politically curious and opinionated at that time (and, for anyone who knows me, I still am), I often ran afoul of my freshman English teacher as she and I held diametrically opposing viewpoints.  Unfortunately, disagreements flared up often, both in and out of class, and my grades in that subject weren’t nearly as good as what I would have liked.  Given both the hostility and my results, I began to grow convinced of two things.  First, that I wasn’t particularly good at writing and second, it reinforced my beliefs that I should only associate with people who held my most important values.  As one example, in my sophomore English class, I openly declared that I only wanted to have friends who were conservative and Christian, like me.

Moving forward in time, my senior year I had an English teacher by the name of Mrs. Fielding.  I am grateful that she was both a positive and motivating instructor.  Sometimes, either after class or before, I would stay behind or show up early to speak with her on a variety of subjects.  And, during our talks, I discovered that she was a Catholic.  Although I’m sure that I had met a whole host of Catholics before, I believe that she was the first authority figure who identified as such.  However, my time growing up in the Presbyterian Church as well as one of my great uncles (also Presbyterian) had coloured my view of that faith.  As just a few examples, I was told that they prayed to Mary and the saints and venerated relics of the dead, both of which my church frowned upon and thus meant that they weren’t really Christian.  Nevertheless, because I found our conversations so interesting, I wanted them to continue.

At one point she told me a little of her time growing up, when she attended school and some of her classmates derided her as a pagan due to her religious beliefs.  She said “pagan” as if the word had cut her deeply.  Although I wasn’t a Catholic, I remember thinking that this bullying seemed dreadfully unfair.  I thought that assuming that she was as nice a person then as she was in the late 1990s, regardless of her religious convictions, she certainly didn’t deserve this kind of poor treatment.  How would I feel in her shoes?  Some years later, I began to wonder if I was being trained to be like her persecutors.

During the election season that year I skipped one day of senior English when then Virginia Governor George Allen and Attorney General Jim Gilmore came to campaign in downtown Harrisonburg.  I remember that my teacher wasn’t happy about me being absent, but it didn’t scuttle our relationship.

As such, as the year progressed, we continued speaking, often discussing my other favorite subject, politics.  No, it wasn’t part of the assigned reading for the class, but she suggested that I pick up a copy of The Prince.  It is a remarkably short book, but I read it many times and it planted a seed of interest in political philosophy that grew and has continued to the present day.  I count the works of Machiavelli, Hobbes, Cicero, Locke, and Rousseau as some of the most important tomes I have on my shelf.  In addition, I recall that she considered herself a Democrat.  However, unlike the previous Democrats I had run across, I believe that she was the first with whom I could hold civil conversations, even when we disagreed, and for that I was grateful.

Fortunately, as a result of my time in my senior year of English, I began to shed my strong aversion of Catholics and transitioned into no longer viewing them as the enemy, just as simply people with a differing religious perspective.  Beliefs taught early in life are tough to eliminate completely, but in the years that followed, I ended up supporting quite a few Catholic politicians such as:  former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, Delegate Bob Marshall, and Delegate Mark Berg, as well as making some Catholic friends.  Yes, although we don’t share the exact same religious convictions, that distinction doesn’t make any of us bad people or worthy of scorn or abuse.

Looking back, perhaps I infused that life lesson into my most recent novel.  The first character you meet leads the reader to believe that the Catholics will be the main villain of the story, and although there are certainly some awful interactions between the Catholics and the Protestants, you hopefully realize that the true enemy is not the Catholics (or the Protestants) or even anyone else who believes what we might consider heresy, but instead hypocritical and immoral people who commit dreadful acts out of fear and in the lustful pursuit of power.  I didn’t begin crafting my first book until several years after college, but I’m sure that my time in senior English helped mend my writing confidence.

In early 2015 (or was it late 2014?), I’m pleased to say that I ran into Mrs. Fielding at one of the local grocery stores after many years away.  I gave her my contact information in the hopes she might have some suggestions of how I could publish one of my books.  Unfortunately, nothing emerged from our brief conversation. But, I still have dreams that something positive will come in the future.

I cannot say how many lives she improved through her class, but I know that I still appreciate everything I learned.  So, here’s to you, Mrs. Fielding.  Thank you!  I hope you have been enjoying your retirement!

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