9th grade: Mr. Robinson
In 9th grade it got real. We were in Pre-IB English, and it wasn’t for sissies any more. This was going to be hard. We suddenly had to dive into literature like never before. We had to do this new thing called analyzing. We had to provide specific proof. Enter Mr. Robinson, the most odd English teacher yet.
There was a comical mythos surrounding the man. He was apparently born on the campus of Notre Dame, or something, and maybe also went there too? He loved to eat orange peels. He was in his final years of teaching when I had him, but you wouldn’t know it. He was a leprechaun of a man with a devilishly giant personality, spirited and lively for his age. When he read he had a rolling, colorful voice almost like he was channeling Rowan Atkinson, or what C.S. Lewis was known to have sounded like. He was cartoonish enough for that remaining childishness in us to giggle about, but serious and academic enough to challenge us as high school students. He would make strange faces and noises in reaction to the characters as well as some of our unnecessary comments, embracing the silly but dismissing the too silly.
Mr. Robinson threw all the adult classics at us. No more adolescent novels. It was on to Animal Farm; 1984; Spoon River; Winesborg, Ohio; Ethan Frome; Ballad of the Sad Cafe; Rome and Juliet; The Great Gatsby. It was all so very daunting, and we were plunged into the depths and made to learn to swim. Essay after essay after essay about great, mature literature. And Mr. Robinson, always with a hint of delight, would tell us to try and see if we could do it. He would explain anything, but without giving away too much. If we hadn’t read it, we were out of luck.
I didn’t catch a lot of what he spoke about theme and character, and this reminds me how little even the brightest can students only catch so much. Yes, I thought myself pretty bright at the time, after years of easy English, and Mr. Robinson was the perfect teacher to humble me without making me feel helpless. I struggled to write about how, as Mr. Robinson explained it, every character in Sad Cafe was either loved or beloved, even the midget.
It is surprising that I found The Great Gatsby to be very dull that year. I was only in 9th grade, and I didn’t see what was great and mysterious about a rich guy having an affair with a rich woman and going to a bunch of parties. But what did intrigue me was the pair of glasses hovering over the valley of ashes. Mr. Robinson drew us to the ominous nature of this symbol, and from then on I paid full attention to symbols in literature. In college I returned to Gatsby, and more fully understood and appreciated the captivating artistry of Fitzgerald.
I fell in love with 1984 that year. As he drew out the themes for us with an almost maniacal passion for the abuse of language in this dystopian world as if he had created it, I nurtured a fever for stories in which language and society could be reshaped. You could tell he loved these stories for the characters as well as the craft. I tried to understand the blend of old stories of lonely, obsessed, twisted adults making strange choices, and was attracted by the grotesque charm of these tales in a way that made me want to write such stories. Wing Beedlebaum and his hands, the dwarf in Sad Cafe, love-torn Ethan Frome limping in the snow.
That year my own imagination shifted. I was almost embarrassed to have mostly read so many stories about fantasy creatures and spaceships. Robinson once went on a little tirade about what makes good literature: “Who wants to read a story about someone falling in love with a computer?” he said, mockingly making kissy faces at his fat computer monitor. “Who can love a computer? Nobody is going to read that!” He wasn’t poking at any of our tastes, but satirizing our society. Someone once asked if he was going to see a hit movie coming out. He replied, “no, you know what I’m going to see? Hannibal Lecter! He reminds me of the Boston Stranger.” He grinned hungrily and let out a triumphant cackle.
I wasn’t there yet, but I felt like I was supposed to read stories about fully grown men and women tormented by things I didn’t understand who walked lonely about groves of trees, passing various colorful symbols of their struggles. Even when I didn’t enjoy them, I wanted to at least understand them. My world was getting larger, and so was my understanding of literature. Mr. Robinson’s lectures and gift of autonomy in reading and writing challenged us while also giving us the necessary tools to meet the challenges.
Even in my own creative writing, such as the spy novel I’d written in 7th grade, I decided that it needed to be a fancy epigraph and a thematic prologue that did not at all fit the genre, but exemplified my commitment to a more mature approach to writing. The anthologies of Spoon River and Winesburg inspired me to dream up an anthology of seven stories about people who exhibit the “seven things the Lord hates” and end up in an insane asylum.
One trait I picked up from Robinson was this noise he would make when gesturing a paragraph being longer or shorter. I realized after I started doing it as a teacher that it came from him. It was this clicky sound like a tiny garage door opening or closing. I do it in honor of Robinson.
I also learned how having a little bit of mystery surrounding yourself can help draw the respect of students and channel their dwindling capacity for wonder into a space where they can nurture it still. I still wonder about that strange little man who was so into English he himself was English, a sophisticated and slightly whimsical mentor to young adults trying to understand the prodigious, nebulous, and sometimes boring world of the classics.
Here’s to you, Mr. Robinson.