My grade school was St. Brigid’s, in northwest Detroit. The parish has been closed for 22 years, and I suppose the school closed before that. I remember getting half a day off school for Father Brennan’s feast day. I remember teachers like Sister Patrick Elizabeth and Sister Mary Eamon (Eamon, as in de Valera–the school had lots of green on St. Patrick’s Day).
More than anything, I remember my sixth-grade English teacher, Mr. Strunk. He was only the second teacher I’d had at St. Brigid’s who wasn’t a nun, and the only one who was male.
In hindsight, I suppose I didn’t have a mental model for what a male teacher would be like. I was disconcerted at first by how different he seemed. I need to say that I had some very good teachers: I don’t recall any of that whacking-with-rulers stuff that people seem to assume was mandatory in pre-Vatican II Catholic schools.
But Mr. Strunk was really different. He said things that were funny, wry, unexpected. He read to us from Mad Magazine–and may have been planting a crop of critical thinking with the seed-starter of parody. He went far beyond the stuffy borders of our textbook.
Early in the school year, when he’d said something funny, I responded with with a sarcastic laugh. (I suppose it was my ten-year-old’s critique: teachers weren’t supposed to be cracking wise.) He said, not harshly, “If you don’t think it’s funny, don’t laugh.”
That was a door he opened just for me, but he spent a lot of time opening doors like it: “Think for yourself. You can do it.”
He’d open them by assigning sixth graders a 1,500 word composition. Topic: The Dime. That was it; a two-word topic and a length. What can you do with that?
Another assignment: a 48-line poem. This time, he assigned the title: “The Last Voyage of The Albatross.”
I don’t recall anything I wrote–but I have a vivid sense of enjoying the writing. I have an even more vivid sense of what he wrote on my paper, because it leapt into my memory and has never left:
Your poetry improves, my friend,
with each brand new endeavor.
I wish that I had words to lend
to serve you as a level.
But while such things as kings and men
on your mind’s sea do toss,
don’t let this be the last voyage
of your young Albatross.
School was never the same, and a few teachers after him suffered by comparison. I lost contact with him after going out of state for most of high school. In pre-Facebook days, it was hard to track down someone out of state; in post-Facebook days, it can still hard to connect with someone who was over 25 when John Kennedy was assassinated.
Through a friend of my younger brother’s, I learned last year that Mr. Strunk was still in the Detroit area; he spent 40 years teaching and coaching. The friend sent me an address, but warned me that his health was poor. I wrote a letter that week; I’d sealed it and stamped it, then realized he might not be up to a written reply. I reprinted the letter and included a phone number, on the outside chance that he might remember me and might be up to calling.
No such luck, but that was all right. The important thing for me was to say to him directly, more personally, the kinds of things I’ve talked about here.
I have not seen Mr. Strunk since, I suppose, 1963. Many of my classmates will remember one of his weekend gigs at the parish’s activities building: hosting a hootenanny (and that’s a word well on its way to joining “floppy disk” and “antimacassar” ) . One of his standards was The MTA Song — about a hapless Boston commuter who lacked the “exit fare” and so couldn’t pay to get off the train.
And did he ever return?
No, he never returned
And his fate is still unlearned.
He may ride forever
‘Neath the streets of Boston:
He’s the man who never returned.
For me, Mr. Strunk was the man who always returned. I decided to become a teacher in part because of his example. Even after leaving the education field, I would recall his intelligent encouragement, his genuine interest in his students, his respect for their intelligence that included challenging them.
I learned only today that Mr. Strunk died last month. One woman wrote in the funeral home’s online guestbook, “My all time favorite teacher and I will never forget how honored I felt when he told me to call him Frank.”
It’d be hard to top that. I am grateful to be able to say “Mr. Strunk” and still feel his presence. I’ve read comments from people who were students in his final years of teaching, and from classmates of mine–we who were the first class he taught, more than 50 years ago. There are teachers I will always cherish–Brother Leo and Brother André, Father McKendrick and Dr. MacDonald, Professor Bauder — but there was only one Frank Strunk.