Four Teachers

It’s late Tuesday night, and I’m writing this post in front of the TV, while primary returns dribble in and the talking heads try to make some sense of the spin.  No, don’t worry.  I’m not going political.  But I’ve been trying to figure out what to write about this month, and perhaps appropriately in this year of campaigns, it took a politician’s victory speech to inspire me.

I first started thinking seriously about becoming a writer when I was still in my teens. And it’s no coincidence that during my four years in high school I had the privilege of taking classes from four outstanding English teachers.  They taught me to write, they taught me to love the written word.  They were there during class, of course.  But they were there after school as well.  They devoted hours of their time and unmeasurable amounts of energy not only to me, but to all of us. 

There’s nothing new in this.  We hear stories about teachers giving to their students all the time.  It’s still remarkable to me that we don’t pay our teachers the way we pay our baseball stars and corporate CEOs.  But looking back I’ve always been amazed by the concentration of teaching talent in my public high school’s English department.  It’s not just that I had four outstanding teachers of writing and literature.  What’s amazing is that these were the four best teachers I had in any department in all the classes I took during my four years.

The first of these teachers, a man named Duke Schirmer, actually taught all three of my older siblings as well.  Four Coes over a span of fifteen years.  Duke was ageless and not at all what you’d expect a high school teacher to look like.  He was tall and thin, with a face that was deeply lined and unbelievably expressive.  He wore the same thing everyday:  An old white t-shirt and worn khaki pants.  He would talk to us while walking around the room or squatting of the floor like a baseball catcher or sitting with his butt on the back of the chair and his feet on the seat.  Duke taught tenth grade creative writing, and he was passionate about it.  He taught me what it meant to write from my heart, to write what I loved.  I still remember the story I wrote for my final project in that class.  I won’t tell you anything about it, because it was terrible.  I mean REALLY awful.  But it was the story I had to write, the story that was burning a whole in my heart.  And to Duke, that was everything.

The following year, I had Rose Scotch for eleventh grade literature.  I’d been an “A” student all my life, and the first paper I wrote for Rose earned me a “C+”.  I was shocked.  I didn’t know what to think, and frankly I was ticked off.  Until I read her comments.  I mean really read them.  And until I went in and talked to her, and she forced me to admit that it wasn’t a good paper, that it wasn’t the paper I should have written.  Rose spent the rest of that year encouraging me to challenge myself, and making me a better student, a more insightful reader, a more effective writer.

Senior year I took two English classes — American Literature with Mike DiGennaro, and a selective creative writing course to which I was admitted, taught by Phil Restaino.  Mike was a brilliant student of literature.  While still a teacher, he went back to school and earned his Ph.D. in lit.  How many public school teachers do that?  His passion (there’s that word again) for fiction made me look at books and stories in ways I’d never even considered before.  And Phil, who was a terrific critique of our work, taught me the most important thing I needed to learn about writing.  All of us were struggling in the class.  We’d gotten off to good starts, but as we neared the end of the term we were not getting the work done.  I’ve never forgotten what Phil told us then — I’m paraphrasing here, but basically he said that the key to writing wasn’t talent — although talent was important — it was doing the work.  He gave me the high school English class version of “Put your butt in the chair.”

It may well seem strange to readers of this post that I’m praising these teachers by name.  The names mean nothing to any of you (unless you happen to be graduates of Mamaroneck High School).  But if I was talking about writers who had influenced me or movies that had inspired me, you’d think nothing of me mentioning the writers, directors, producers, actors, and characters by name.   So why should teachers be different?  These four people shaped my life; to this day they remain heroes to me.  As a society, I don’t believe we place enough value on excellent teaching.  Maybe this is my small way of saying that teachers matter and that they made a huge difference in my professional life.

In any case, my deepest thanks to Duke, Rose, Mike, and Phil:  my teachers, my mentors, my friends.

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  1. 1. Michele Conti

    Not to mention, it’s nice to hear someone praising you for being cool, even if nobody else knows who the heck ya are. Right? :)

  2. 2. Marie Brennan

    Nancy Black — the best English teacher I ever had, and also the force behind “Theory of Knowledge,” a catch-all class for a bunch of cool subjects our school didn’t teach, like rhetoric and philosophy and comparative religion.

    Nancy Collier — Magistra, my teacher of Latin. She didn’t just teach me the language; she got me and my friends interested enough that we competed at a national level, and learned a crap-ton of extra stuff along the way.

    Mr. Feekin — god, I was young enough that I’m not even sure of his first name. Alan? Maybe? He was my teacher in our one-day-a-week gifted program fourth through sixth grades, and not only did he help keep me sane when school was boring me out of my mind, he was an incredibly creative and energetic person.

    Joyce Seaborne Bader — she recently passed away, but she made me love dance as I never had before. (As you can probably tell by Chapter Twelve of Doppelganger.)

    Most of them had little to do with writing per se, but they fed into it by indirect routes, by making me care.

  3. 3. Misty Massey

    Larry Rowland, who taught at the University of South Carolina – Beaufort, brought history to life for me in a way no teacher ever had, and inspired me to dig for the real stories underneath the dates and names. One afternoon, he took us outside and made us form a phalanx, because we were having trouble understanding what the big deal was. He communicated history as a story teller of old, and he made us give it back to him the same way. He gave us essay tests once a week, and he always told me I wrote as if I’d been there watching it all happen.

    I ran into him at a football game a couple of years ago, right after Tor had first made an offer on the book. I told him my good news, and he patted me on the shoulder. “Doesn’t surprise me at all,” he said. “I figured I’d see you in bookstores eventually.”

    Thanks, Larry!

  4. 4. Sharon

    I found your blog while googling one of my favorite English teachers; I’ll leave you to figure out who that was.

    I was in your grade at Mamaroneck High School and I remember you. We traveled in different circles, but I have the same pleasant memories of some of those teachers that you have, and one of them had a profound impact on my life. I now have a son in tenth grade which still amazes me. How nice it is to reach across the miles to someone with shared experiences!

  5. 5. David B. Coe

    It seems to me that many people (and I’m not just referring to writers, here) have at least one teacher who influenced them in this way. Thanks to Marie and Misty for sharing your stories. And thanks, Michele, for the comment.

  6. 6. David B. Coe

    Wow, Sharon! Just got your post today. Thanks so much for leaving the comment!

  7. 7. S.L. Farrell

    For me, it was John Massarella, my high school English teacher, who gave me the encouragement and the nascent skills to become a writer. Without him… who knows?

  8. 8. David Bachrach

    David, I am guessing you are the youngest of the Coes…Billy was in my class at MHS and I too had Duke Schirmer…a great an influencial teacher. We are so proud that both our children have chosen teaching as a profession … both in the NY area…Josh teaches English at Dalton and inspires his 6th graders in the same way Duke inspired us…djb

  9. 9. David B. Coe

    Hi David! Yes, Bill is my oldest brother, and I recall hearing your name many times. Great to hear that your kids are teaching. My younger daughter is only 11, but she already talks about wanting to teach. It restores my faith a little bit….

  10. 10. David Sapery

    Sadly, Duke Schirmer just passed away in February. He was the favorite teacher of just about every MHS student lucky enough to enter his classroom.

  11. 11. David B. Coe

    I had heard that, David. Sad news indeed. He touched so many lives over so many years.

  12. 12. Emily

    Hey there! Thanks for this post. Do you have any idea where Rose Scotch is now? I had her as a teacher at MHS too and she’s been on my mind. Thanks!

  13. 13. David B. Coe

    I’m sorry, Emily. I don’t.

  14. 14. Joel Sanoff

    I too am an MHS grad, class of 1965. I never had Duke Schirmer for a teacher, but he was indeed legendary. I was lucky enough to have classes with Bob Wolff, who taught us all how to read plays and not just buy tickets to them…and Robert Geller, who introduced us to the idea of film as literature. Mr Geller actually became a producer and hired one of my classmates, Jeff Wanshel (who became a playwright of note) to write the teleplay for one of his episodes of the American Short Story on PBS. David, I too, knew your older brother Bill, though I was a grade ahead. I also knew David Bachrach, so hello, David, if you remember me. And as far as the quality of teaching at MHS back in the day, it surpassed everything my kids experienced here in Southern California. And I think it actually surpassed some college programs. It was a great place to learn.

Author Information

David B. Coe

David B. Coe (http://www.DavidBCoe.com) is the Crawford award-winning author of the LonTobyn Chronicle, the Winds of the Forelands quintet, the Blood of the Southlands trilogy, and a number of short stories. Writing as D.B. Jackson (http://www.dbjackson-author.com), he is the author of the Thieftaker Chronicles, a blend of urban fantasy, mystery, and historical fiction. David is also part of the Magical Words group blog (http://magicalwords.net), and co-author of How To Write Magical Words: A Writer’s Companion. In 2010 he wrote the novelization of director Ridley Scott’s movie, Robin Hood. His books have been translated into more than a dozen languages. Visit site.

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