On Making Me A Citizen of the World

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He introduced me to the wider world, taught me how to write and gave me a lifetime of joy with the skills that he developed in me. He was my high school English teacher for all four years, a man of culture who also happened to be a priest. His name as I knew him was Father Shane and he so inspired me that my life totally changed under his guidance. Without him I might have been trapped in an unchanging parochial loop of sameness and unwillingness to embrace change. In the four years that I sat in his classroom I thoroughly accepted his message that we explore ideas and make learning a lifetime proposition. 

I had began this journey with my father but when he died there was a void. His collection of books was a start but in never grew and he was not there to discuss the meanings and insights that he had drawn from them. His music told a story but it too remained forever abridged. It would be Father Shane who would complete the arc of exploration into the great ideas and accomplishments of humankind upon the foundation that my father had laid. 

Father Shane’s first commandment was to read, read, read. He required us to complete one book a week and then write a review of the text. He demanded that we encounter the full spectrum of genres, titles that included the great works as well as more modern texts. He did not want us to write a summary of the book but rather discuss the thematic importance of its words, structures, ideas. Completing such a task on a weekly basis was grueling at first but then it became a delightful habit that led me down avenues that I did not know even existed.

Father Shane also introduced us to newspapers, journals, periodicals that enhanced our understanding of the wider world beyond our little neighborhoods. He read to us from the New York Times and The New Yorker magazine. He took us to see plays at the Alley Theater and to listen to symphony concerts. He even filled the classroom with artwork and encouraged us to visit visual art museums.

Father Shane was a stickler for grammar and usage. Every week of instruction included forays into the structure of our language. Through practice, diagramming and instruction I became a kind of linguistic expert. When I later took a notoriously difficult grammar class in college I stunned the professor with my knowledge so greatly that she wanted to know where I had learned so much. I was proud to provide her with Father Shane’s name. 

Every Monday for four years Father Shane wrote a single word or phrase on the blackboard that became the prompt for the two hundred word theme that we had to write. I stewed over that assignment many a time, often scribbling a last ditch effort to complete the task in the late hours of the of the evening before it was due. The exercise taught me how to dig deeply into my experiences and creativity to find my voice. It made me capable of extemporaneously responding with a degree of coherency and depth. It eventually became a joy rather than an onerous job and it served me well in college when professors buried my in seemingly undoable writing assignments that I always managed to complete on time.

Perhaps the best lesson that Father Shane taught me came from the total disaster of my senior research paper. By then he had made me aware that I was one of his top students. I wanted to please him even more with a paper that would stun him with its depth of information. I chose George Bernard Shaw as my topic, just the man and his entire life. If I had been writing a book I might have impressed my teacher but instead I attempted to squeeze so much into the paper that it had no theme, no main idea. 

I literally read everything that Shaw ever wrote and then attempted to discuss his works in two or three sentence reviews. I devoured multiple biographies and retold the story of his life. My paper ended up being like a Reader’s Digest or Wikipedia review with little or no analysis. It took me over a week just to type it and properly cite all of my sources. I thought it was a masterpiece but in truth it was dry and lifeless, the kind of thing that begins to bore after a couple of pages and I had at least thirty of them. I had made the mistake of attempting to accomplish too much. If I had linked his politics to his writing or discussed his views on women as shown in his female characters I might have had something great. Unfortunately there was nothing tying all of the many parts together.

I was about to graduate and major in English literature in college. I wanted to be a writer, a journalist. I wanted to be just like my favorite teacher, Father Shane. He had never given me a grade lower than an A on any assignment I had completed. He had asked me to help grade the weekly themes of the freshmen that he taught. I thought I was his superstar and then he returned my research paper with a big red C scrawled across the cover sheet and a scathing review written on the back page. 

I was in tears and hardly able to look at the teacher who had seemingly betrayed me. I thought that I should have at least received some credit for doing so much work. Some of my peers who had hardly given thought to the project fared much better than I did. I was crushed and angry at the same time, unable to even confront Father Shane to argue my case. I put the paper away in a drawer in my bedroom and forgot about it as I engaged in the end of high school ceremonies. 

It was not until the summer that I found the courage to read Father Shane’s critique of my master work with calm and an intent to learn from it. I realized that his remarks were an effort to help me, not tear me down. He was a great teacher to the very end. If not for his honesty I might never have understood how to improve my craft. The dozens and dozens of papers that I had to write in college may have been just as lacking as my senior thesis. Instead he outlined every single misstep I had taken and told me how to correct those errors in the future. He cared enough to get my attention and then to rationally guide me in a better direction. 

In college I had to write and write and write. I often had professors ask me where I had learned how to so beautifully bring my voice to my work. I always had the same answer. It had been Father Shane who was the teacher who changed my perspectives, widened my horizons, and showed me how to use the power of words. Few people beyond my parents have ever had such an enormous impact on shaping the person I ultimately became. He was a master teacher who achieved his goal with me. He made me a citizen of the world.