With a special teacher, a student starts to soar

School's out, summer's here, and, with that, the season of reunions. Having just weathered - er, enjoyed - my college reunion, I am anticipating my 25th next year at the school I attended in Massachusetts. And as that celebration begins to loom large, my thoughts turn naturally to my years there - to fun, friends, and teachers.

I have always fancied myself a writer. So when I was a senior in high school, I signed up for the notoriously tough course taught by the head of the English department. Only the best English students took it, and since I had always counted myself among their number, it was a natural choice.

But the first day was a nightmare. I might have fancied myself a writer, but the teacher fancied himself Socrates with a Marquis de Sade twist. No student was safe from his relentless interrogation and personal humiliation.

I couldn't take it. I'd had hard teachers before, and I'd even had a few mean ones. But I knew I couldn't learn from someone who seemed to me to be downright cruel.

I switched to a new course: Creative Writing, taught by a brand-new teacher. My friends thought I was nuts, even a wimp, for giving up so quickly. After my first class with the new teacher, I knew my friends were wrong.

She was a magical teacher, even though she was barely older than her students. Exotic and a bit eccentric (her hair so long she could sit on it), she kept us spellbound every day. Each lesson seemed carefully crafted, each assignment thoughtfully given. Poetry was her passion, and she let slip that she spent the first 45 minutes of each day reading poetry. Though it was the cynical '70s, we seniors found that devotion inspiring.

That she also wrote poetry was clear: Soon we heard her work, one line at a time. She was brilliant, we thought. We proclaimed ourselves fortunate to have escaped "him" and gotten her instead.

Slowly we began to emulate her, reading far beyond the poetry assigned, disciplining ourselves to write at least an hour a day. We hunkered down in the library, reading during our free periods, writing long past dinner. We rushed through our other schoolwork, saving her assignments for last, like a good dessert. No senior slump for us - we would have been horrified at the prospect of disappointing her.

During that class I lived and breathed poetry - we all did - and began keeping a poetry journal, a habit I have kept to this day. My teacher sparked in me an appreciation for a clever turn of phrase and a love of verse. Though I would not have dared to say it to my classmates, I was convinced that she would be famous someday. Her writing was that good, I thought; and in my adolescent insistence on being right, I kept the evaluation she sent home to my parents.

It had her signature. I was sure it would be worth displaying someday.

I suppose I was right, because she is famous. Her name is Julia Alvarez, and some proclaim her among the greatest writers of her generation. Poetry, her first love, helped hone her prose. She is a bestselling novelist.

I still have that evaluation, tucked in with other papers I spare from my periodic purges. But that is not Ms. Alvarez's true legacy to me. Indirectly I learned to trust my own instincts, and my own judgment. More directly I learned the value of passion and the critical importance of discipline. I learned that a good writer must read great literature, and that every experience has the potential to become a poem. I hope she learned that even a young teacher can change the lives of a dozen teenagers - forever.

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