A True Teacher

An assignment from Natalie Goldberg from Old Friend from Far Away

“Tell me about someone who was a true teacher for you. Don’t be sentimental. Tell it straight and plain: Who was this person? Go. Ten minutes.”

I walked into class that first day to find a scruffy middle-aged man with a muddy English drawl, the translation of which was further complicated by a mouthful of questionably clean and crooked teeth. His name was Mr. Pugh. He had been teaching honors English in my high school for many years. Both my older brothers had him and I had heard stories when I was much younger.

He was unabashedly eccentric. He explained to us the first day of class that if he woke up in the morning and the same pair of pants was still sitting on the floor from the day before, he would simply put them on again. When you had to get close to him with a question or to hand in a paper you quickly realized that although he had lived in the US for many years, he had not fully embraced our love of daily hygeine.

I would have him as a teacher all year, first for Great Books and then for Advanced Composition. He did not “mentor” me in any traditional sense. He was not the kind of teacher who would throw you accolades and be a cheerleader. He was grumpy, sullen, and antagonistic. He preferred his class to be full of lively discourse bordering on arguments. He wanted people to feel challenged.

And not just about the content of the books we were reading, but on every day topics. It was 1978 and teachers and school administrators were finally figuring out that a good portion of the student body was high during the school day. Someone had been taken aside by another teacher and accused of being high in class. The discussion in Pugh’s class that day about the incident centered on whether a teacher was in a position to unequivocally say whether a student was under the influence or not.

Being the outspoken girl I tended to be, I was arguing quite vehemently that there was no way a teacher could really know if a student was high.

Pugh’s response was straightforward and sarcastic, “Meckling, we always know when you’re high.”

I’m indebted to Mr. Pugh for my love of the following writers: Albert Camus, Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Shakespeare. I’m indebted to him for honing my writing skills enough that I never felt the sort of panic that many people feel when asked to write, leaving me with a skill that lead to my pursuit of an English degree in college. I’m indebted to him for telling me I am a writer, for taking me aside and explaining to me that there would be jobs for writers in the real world. And although my adolescent lack of confidence in this arena did not allow me to really believe him at the time, I am forever indebted to him for planting that thought in my head. Clearly it stayed with me.

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