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In Praise of English Teachers

It occurred to me today — as R.A. Dickey slipped on the Wrigley Field grass and had his right foot slipped into a protective boot [1] (lord help the Met who nicks himself shaving); and the Mets bore witness to the Cubs’ ability to scamper around the bases in the bitter cold [2]; and David Einhorn introduced himself [3]to us as either our savior or simply another obscenely wealthy hedge fund manager with $200 million getting bored in his back pocket — that 2011 hasn’t been the best of years for English teachers. I’ve lost my two favorites in the past five months.

Dana Brand wasn’t my English teacher, but as word of his passing sunk in throughout Thursday, I considered that there’s a whole other segment of people who are feeling a void right now, people unrelated to Dana by bloodline, marriage or even Mets Fandom. This has to be a crushing blow for his students past and present. When you lose someone who helps you reach inside yourself and communicate with the world around you, it leaves a mark.

It left a mark in January when I lost my English teacher, Mrs. Cuneo.

Technically, I haven’t had an English teacher lately, but Mrs. Cuneo was it for me. She was my ninth-grade English teacher. She, in case you’re wondering, is why you have the opportunity to read me here or anywhere. Mrs. Cuneo is the one who convinced me I was a writer and that I was going to be a writer and that there was no chance I’d be anything but a writer. I’d love to tell you what she said to so clearly blaze that segment of my life path, but I don’t remember. If there was a single flashpoint or conversation, I’ve forgotten it (and since I’m renowned in certain circles for my alleged Marilu Henner-like memory, [4] that’s unlikely).

As best as I could piece together when I was compelled by her death to recall ninth-grade English, I remembered being buoyed by the confidence Mrs. Cuneo exuded on my behalf whenever she read something I wrote, and how she strongly suggested I write something more. It was infectious. This woman was so matter-of-fact about what I could do and what I should do, that I just felt dutybound to follow through. It wasn’t that she taught me some hot new way to conjugate verbs or unlocked the mysteries of participles and predicates for me. She essentially said, “You’re a writer,” and I believed it. Before ninth grade, I was just a kid who could write when called upon to do so. From ninth grade on, writing — like rooting for the Mets — was what I did.

I hadn’t actively thought of Mrs. Cuneo in decades, probably, when I got a phone call in early January from Ellen. Ellen was my seventh- and eighth-grade English teacher. I never called her Ellen then but when we found ourselves in unlikely touch a couple of years ago, she reintroduced herself as Ellen, and since we’re both adults now…sure. Anyway, Ellen called me and said she had some bad news about Jo.

And I was thinking, “Who’s Jo?”

Jo was Josephine. That was Mrs. Cuneo’s first name. Honest to goodness, I never knew that. Maybe “J. Cuneo” on a report card, but otherwise she was Mrs. Cuneo to me — always was, always will be. Well, by whichever name we were referring to Mrs. Cuneo, Mrs. Cuneo had passed away at the age of 87. Ellen knew how much she meant to me, and thought I’d want to know. Mrs. Cuneo’s wake would be taking place not far from where I live, so I would definitely pay my respects.

I showed up at the funeral home on a weekday afternoon and was surprised not so much that there were many people there, but at how many people there were young people — in their early twenties, I’d guess. I learned Mrs. Cuneo had kept teaching until only a few years before, into her eighties. The young people at the funeral home showed up for the exact same reason I did: because their English teacher meant that much to them.

Someone pointed out Mrs. Cuneo’s son for me. I extended my hand and said what I came to say: I’m a writer…and it’s because of Mrs. Cuneo (not “your mother” or “Josephine”). This made the son happy, even though he’d been hearing variations on the theme for a couple of days. After he called his sister over so I could repeat my testimony, he asked me when I had Mrs. Cuneo for a teacher.

“Ninth grade,” I said.

“No, what year?”


“1977 — wow.”

Yes, I suppose — wow. By January, it had been about 33 years since the spring of 1978, since Mrs. Cuneo had last encouraged me to write a little more than was required, probably 32 years since I had seen her at all, but her influence has been with me the whole time. Even without the nudge a person’s passing provides, I knew that. If you had asked me ten or twenty years ago, “How did you become a writer?” Mrs. Cuneo’s name would have come up no later than the third sentence of the second paragraph.

Professor Dana Brand at Hofstra University, I’d be willing to bet, had that kind of impact on his students. Good English teachers stay with you. Mrs. Cuneo did. Ellen did. A couple I had in college still do, and college was more than a quarter-century ago. I’ve been on my own as a writer since then, which may be why I so appreciated knowing Dana.

Beyond all the reasons that existed to befriend him and admire him and, sadly, to miss him [5], he was an English teacher who really liked my writing. He wrote some of the nicest things anybody has ever written about what I’ve written. He did so as a fellow Mets fan and as a blogging peer, but I’m pretty certain deep down that when I would read his thorough critiques [6]or his offhand remarks [7], I’d see a gold star atop my paper. That English teacher thinks I can write — maybe I can!

Trust me, that feeling never fully goes away.