I loathed everything about Emmett Woodshanks (not his real name — his real name was far less Dickensian. He also didn’t look like Alan Rickman. I probably would have liked him a lot more if he had).
I loathed his nearly-bald head, with its wreath of orange hair. I loathed his close-cropped beard and mustache. I loathed his wire-rimmed circular glasses. I loathed the way he licked his upper lip before each thought, the way he leaned against his desk, and the way he began every single solitary class with the quote, “For of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these; It might have been.”
I even loathed that he was short.
I especially loathed that I had to call him “Master.” No, my middle school education didn’t take place in the 1700’s; I went to a Quaker school. The men were “Master” and their first names; the women “Teacher” and their first names. Eventually that switched to “Teacher” for both genders, but in seventh grade I had to call him “Master Emmett.” I loathed it.
I loathed Emmett Woodshanks so much that my seventh grade BFF and I courted middle school fame with our vast list of popular songs whose words we changed to specifically express our loathing of Master Emmett.
So I’m saying I didn’t like the guy.
My parents laughed at me. They said I only didn’t like him because he could see through me. I was one of those kids who skated through school, snagging A’s with as little effort as I could possibly put into them. That wasn’t good enough for Master Emmett. He pushed me. Hard. If I wanted A’s in his class, I’d have to work for them, and since I really really really wanted A’s… I did.
Master Emmett was my English teacher, and I had him for both 7th and 9th grade (though by 9th he had become “Teacher Emmett,” which always sounded weird to me). In seventh grade he taught me proper essay format: the introductory funnel ending in a tersely brilliant topic sentence; the clear supporting paragraphs; and the upside-down funnel conclusion. I found I loved the structure, loved the way it could strengthen an argument until it was irrefutable.
In ninth grade, Teacher Emmett took essay writing to a new level as we delved into comparative literature. He challenged me to come up with difficult, complex, and unique theses that would require both verbal agility and creativity to support. Eager to earn those A’s, I didn’t just read books, I went spelunking in them, seeking out obscure underlying themes and fascinating ways each one tied into others we’d read.
I say I was eager for the A’s, but honestly, by 9th grade I was far more eager to impress Teacher Emmett. Impressing him meant something.
I’d like to say that I became so mature by the end of 9th grade that I even moved beyond impressing him, and felt that achieving a perfect piece of writing was enough… but that would be a lie. I wanted the approval. And the A. Heck, I still want the approval and the A… but under Master/Teacher Emmett’s eye I did develop a true love of what the written word can accomplish, the many layers of a great book, and the joy of wrestling with the language until I find exactly the right words to express what I want to say.
I have to say though, the anti-Emmett songs were seriously catchy. The BFF and I were sure they’d land us on “Fame.” Or at least “Star Search.”
Your turn — any teachers you loathed at first and later loved? Did you ever get back in touch with them and let them know how they impacted your life?
Can’t wait to hear!
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