April 22, 2024

I hate smarmy tributes to teachers as life changers. You know the ones where people say they would have been out on the streets if not for Mrs. So-and-So. I know that teachers do have that kind of influence sometimes, but most of the job is about conquering the little battles, and I just find too much praise a little…too much.

Not that I didn’t have those teachers myself. I did. Not that I’m above waxing sentimental to tell you about it. I’m not. In fact, all of this is just a build up to the fact that I want to talk about Charles Moorman, the teacher who really did change my life.

The class was on Chaucer. I thought the man teaching it was as old as Canterbury. He had my attention from the first minute he walked in the room, though, and said, “Let’s close the door so the Christians won’t hear.” Much to my disappointment, he never said anything the Christians might have objected to. After a lifetime of being behind closed doors with the Christians, I would have been happy for a few hours a week of hearing things they didn’t know. Maybe the Christians I grew up with didn’t know a whole lot about the Miller’s Tale or whatnot, but how shocked could they really be that this is what we talked about in a class on Chaucer?

That was hardly even the point. He talked like that to get attention, and he got it. We heard what he said after he made us laugh. And when he passed out poems every week, we read them. At least I did.

The class was on Chaucer, but once a week we got a packet of contemporary poetry from Dr. Moorman. Copied. Collated. Stapled. There I met Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, Theodore Rhoetke, Frank O’Hara, Seamus Heaney, Philip Larkin, Denise Levertov, Anne Sexton, Wendy Cope, and many others. There I fell in love with poetry.

I was an English major, but I had never really read any 20th century poetry before. I loved it. I loved it more than Chaucer, and that was considerable. I went on from Dr. Moorman’s to do a master’s thesis on Philip Larkin, a poet I’d never heard of until those weekly packets. From there, I went to a PhD program where I switched over to creative writing with a concentration in poetry.

I can only guess how my life might have been different if I’d never taken the Chaucer class that studied contemporary poets.

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