Creative writing teacher helped build foundation

By: Joe Weaver - Contributing columnist

This week is Teacher Appreciation Week. I have a number of friends who are teachers, some new teachers and some veterans. My grandmother was an elementary school teacher and retired almost 30 years ago. She taught for some time and I hope that her students have held her in the regard that I hold some of the teachers I had throughout the years. I am one of those who still think teaching is an honorable profession and some days I wonder if I should have become a teacher. I had thought about it many years ago, but never took the leap.

I was in high school more than 30 years ago. There were some teachers I liked and, honestly, some I did not. The ones I didn’t like weren’t bad teachers, I just think our personalities clashed. It was a long time ago, but even I can remember I wasn’t terribly easy to deal with. My favorite subject was English, so naturally I gravitated to the English teachers as my favorites. The English teachers were largely well read. They were creative and intellectual. I thought I might have been as well, but I was just clever with words and liked to read and write. If you read and write and like to read and write, English was pretty much the perfect class for you. I read a lot. I could read a book in a few days. Eventually, my love of reading made writing pretty natural. I got tired of what I was reading not going the way I liked, so I started creating my own work.

In middle school, you are mostly directed what to write. You have a concrete assignment and you write it, and rarely is there any true creativity. I’m not suggesting that is how it is done now, but 30-odd years ago, it was the norm. By the time I reached high school, I had been writing in my spare time at home and wanted to expand my horizons. In high school, there was a specific class for creative writing. A lot of people take a creative writing class because it’s free form and fun and the impression is you can get away with goofing off. I wanted to write the Great American Novel.

The creative writing class at my high school was taught by a most unusual teacher. In my day, the teachers were either aged old-timers who were incredibly dry or young first-year teachers who were barely older than we and were easily manipulated. If you were lucky, you found one who was neither. If you were lucky, you found one who taught for the joy of teaching and truly enjoyed sharing that love with their students. My creative writing teacher was that guy. In those days, he was younger than I am now. He was goofy, fun and shared his passion for the quirks and idiosyncrasies of the English language. He allowed us to be ourselves. He all but insisted we put ourselves into our written works to bring them life. We were encouraged to be free with our words and nothing was off-limits — as long as it was not gratuitous or deliberately offensive.

The students, including myself, were given free rein as long as we acted responsibly. We flourished. Our art and our craft, though in their infancy, blossomed and we were able to write as we wanted. We were poets and storytellers, playwrights and novelists. We were never told that we were “just students.” We were writers. Nothing was off-limits and everything was shared so we all could be exposed to many different kinds of writing, and in turn, many different personalities. Friendships were formed that last until this day. We learned that the shy, reserved girl in the back of the room was a gifted author of science-fiction. We learned that the football star was a talented poet. Kids who barely spoke in school were brilliantly witty in print. What we failed to realize then was we were building the foundation of our adult lives.

The man who tricked us into thinking we were getting away with literary murder and not growing as young adults is very real. He does, in fact, exist. His name is Geoffrey Katsu and he is retiring after 46 years of teaching. Through the magic of social media, a lot of us have gone beyond the teacher-student relationship and have been honored to call him a true friend. We have been welcomed into his home and he into ours. The affection we feel for him is genuine, for he was not only a wonderful and memorable educator, but an accessible, kind and warm gentleman who included all of us into his family. The love we feel for him is not easily put into words. I know dozens of folks from my generation who feel as I do, and I am sure there others from the generations before and after mine who also feel this way. Geoffrey is a humble man, and I am sure he would be a little surprised of the incredible impact he made on all of us in his nearly five decades of teaching.

Not only this column is for Geoffrey Katsu. Every column is for him because without his encouragement many years ago, I would have kept this as a pipe dream. The award I received a few months ago is as much his as it is mine.

For everything I have crafted with the written word, I thank you, my friend. Alot. (This is deliberately misspelled. Geoffrey will know why.)

Baltimore native Joe Weaver is a husband, father, pawnbroker and gun collector. From his home in New Bern, he writes on the lighter side of family life.

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Joe Weaver

Contributing columnist