English Teachers of My Youth: Mr. Campbell

That final year of high school, we all died. We were going to face that shadow guard to our IB certificate (or diploma), that infamous man, Mr. Campbell.

We had to do half the classwork over the summer, reading Possession, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, and As I Lay Dying. Three novels. Not one, not two, but three. The assignment alone was meant to weed out those who wanted an easy class. We had to fill these marble journals with reactions to the writing, highlighting the quotes from the novels we interacted with. This was all before school started. The man was murder.

My first impression of Mr. Campbell was that he was a grumpy middle-aged man who loved literature and hated high school kids. He was a tall, deadpan deadhead with a ponytail and short gray beard. He had a very dry sense of humor, and did not tolerate an excess of chatter or immature jokes. On one of my bad days when someone asked why the blood was purple in John Donne’s “The Flea,” I remarked that blood was a different color back then, and he turned to me and said “shut up, Caleb.”

But when we had something insightful to say, he acknowledge us with prestige. He took English seriously, and wanted us to as well. But it was hard to adjust to at first and he seemed very bitter that we were all so immature and undisciplined for people who were taking a college level class. We had to learn over time that there was much joy to be found in English, but not through treating a class like playtime.

I decided that I couldn’t stand Mr. Campbell after my first major paper. Actually, all his papers were major. He gave me a C (or rather, I earned a C). A grade of C! I was supposed to be a great English student!  He gave me another chance to write a better paper. You know what grade I got? D! A lower grade than the original! It didn’t make sense! So my parents had a conference with him. He went over the fact that this was a high college level class, and that a chance to revise a paper did not mean changing a few words and adding a couple lines. It meant a complete and total revision. I should not take advantage of the opportunity to completely give a second shot all I have. I always tell this story to my Honors English students when they complain.

I still couldn’t stand him, but to prove him wrong, I decided to work my butt off on all my papers. I liked reading this stuff, even when I didn’t understand it. There was a challenge in figuring out the meaning of all this cryptic language, as well as the challenge he had thrown at us. Campbell was hardcore about papers. They had to be lengthy, and have a heady amount of quotations. Even when I wrote my paper on Citizen Kane, he marked it with “Dev” for “develop over and over again. My lazy attempts at mere summary weren’t sophisticated enough for critical thinking. But the underlying assumption was that he knew I could do it. He was a drill sergeant on paper. He knew he had to treat us a bit like that compassionless professor who wouldn’t take our excuses. If we didn’t print a paper in triplicate and turn it in the day it was due, it was our funeral.

But no matter how embittered I was during the year, I still wanted to impress this prodigious instructor. I wanted him to lighten up when I thought I was funny and he didn’t, and I wanted him to approve of my literary insights. Before I knew it I was befriending him through my slow maturation and discipline, both in writing and behavior. I called About A Boy “the guy version of The Millstone,” and his laughter made me feel like an esteemed colleague in the world of clever Englishy people. I made him practically bow before my creative genius when I wrote in the school lit. mag about having “the stealth of a constipated ostrich.”

We did feel like kings in that class, high school seniors privileged to explore the exotic poetry and prose of Byatt’s romance, the blend of magical realism in Marquez, and the stream-of-consciousness plowed and watered by Faulkner. We were given the keys to interpret these difficult, crafty styles. We learned to write about it all with a hundred visions and revisions, as T.S. Eliot would say. Campbell would even agree to meet us at the local coffee shop in the afternoons to review our papers. English teachers already put our evenings into your papers. He made a point of making it matter to us too.

When it came time for my audio-recorded IB exam, I missed my Saturday appointment by 5 minutes and someone else went in my slot. Mr. Campbell stayed an extra half hour to squeeze me in at the end, meaning he would miss part of a documentary on Bob Dylan, even though he could have just failed me. I had to analyze a poem I’d never seen, Yeats’ “I am of Ireland.” I was so nervous I read  the line “in that outlandish gear” as “an outlandish gear” and thought Yeats was talking about his gyres symbolism. Campbell subtly redirected me to read the line another way, and I corrected myself in saying that maybe Yeats was referring to a foreigner’s uniform. He silently nodded in approval. Whew. I had this. Thanks to the wiles of the sensei, I was in flow. I then saw the grace behind the alleged malice that was Campbell. The love/hate relationship I had with that man came to define my relationship to teaching to academia as a whole.

3880045326_8c5c8ec071We couldn’t hate the man by the end of the year. With our exams finished early, we watched episodes of Mr. Bean, Faulty Towers, Freaks and Geeks, The Forsyte Saga. Campbell was actually kind of cool (He is known, after all, to spend his lunch jamming out with talented students in the cafeteria). Since he was late getting home to watch a documentary on Bob Dylan in order to do my exam late, I decided to try and get into Bob Dylan. It worked. In fact, I lamented that I’d been so late in the discovery. Years later, I ran into him at an Avett Brothers concert. There was no denying it: We were both cool. We were English teachers and we were cool.

Entering college, writing was a breeze. I had friends staying up all night writing horrible papers, while I wrote my A papers with sleep time to spare. I owe most of that to Mr. Campbell, the “Whiplash of English” who I started out hating and ended up not wanting to admit I thought was pretty cool. In the end I told him I realized there was a method to his madness.

When I returned to my old stomping grounds to do my student teaching, it was great to be able to hear him once again scream things like “get off my desk!” It was also fun to remind him that we were technically colleagues, like I had won some sort of battle with him after all these years. I took a bit of his style with me. I drill my advanced class students hard with their papers (though I don’t teach IB and don’t nearly torture them as much as he did us). I’ve used Bob Dylan in class. I support the arts. While I tolerate some shenanigans, I demand that my seniors act like the adults they think they are by knowing when not to cross the line of inappropriateness.

There was a method to that man’s madness. I’m sure my students believe there is a method to mine.

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