Hard as a diamond, but also a gem

He blew into class that first day like a great thunder cloud, all blustery and menacing, his arms bulging with books, his wavy white hair streaming out behind him.

Mr. Harris had come to our small public high school from a military prep school, an institution he had not entirely left behind. He barked orders. He called us all by our last names, girls included. He never smiled. If there had been a stockade, we'd have been in it.

But we were to discover that the teacher who pushes you beyond comfortable limits, who opens your eyes to new horizons and makes you want to go there, however difficult the journey, is friend, not foe. Someone who sees your full potential and cares enough to help you reach it is a gem, a treasure.

At the time, we thought he was just plain mean.

Mr. Harris meant business. Boys would no longer write about sports and cars, nor girls about clothes and summer vacations. We would read the great novelists of the 20th century and become great writers ourselves. Period.

Not long into the school year, we got an assignment that blew us back in our chairs. We were to choose a noted author (no pulp fiction, of course) and read seven of his or her books. We would then write a 2,500-word paper, complete with outline, notecards, footnotes, and bibliography.

Up to this point we'd never been asked to write more than 700 words. We'd certainly never had to read seven books at a time. Notecards? Where was this man from – another planet? This was high school, not college.

We moaned and groaned at him and complained to our parents. My mother, who never, ever, tried to intervene for my brother or me, marched down to the principal's office. She told him in no uncertain terms that I couldn't possibly do all that I had to do – homework, school committees, sports, the yearbook, and a part-time job – and complete this assignment as well. No way. I was stunned at my mother's actions. Mr. Harris must be really unfair!

Principal Pollis wasn't impressed. He said I could, and I would. That was the end of that. And so it was that I began my search for "the use of color to create mood in the works of Sinclair Lewis," a choice I regretted from the start.

Then one fine day, while we were still plowing through our seven books, we had a major breakthrough with Mr. Harris. We'd been given an overnight writing assignment. I don't remember the particulars now, but I do remember that no matter how I tried, I couldn't put one word on paper. The multitude of grammar and style and subject rules Mr. Harris had imposed rendered me speechless. Writing was supposed to be easy. I always got A's in English.

I called my classmates. They were no help. We were all completely stuck. Finally, well into the night, I wrote about how I could not write. It turned out to be pretty funny, but I doubted he'd laugh. He'd give me an F for sure.

The next day, one by one, he called on us to read our papers. A few paragraphs into each one, he'd bellow, "Sit down!" They'd done it wrong. It was the worst day we'd had so far.

Finally, exasperated, he asked through gritted teeth: "Is there anyone who's done what I asked you to do?" We all looked at our shoes. Mine were brown loafers. I can still see them, him, the whole scene.

I'd heard his rebukes and corrections of everyone else, and I was beginning to think I might have done what he'd asked. But I was too afraid to speak up. He must have read my mind. "Hitt, read yours," he said, glowering down at me.

My hands were shaking, my voice croaky. I wanted to fade away and wake up in Miss Stevens's classroom. Dear Miss Stevens, with the bun at the back of her head and those laced-up, sturdy walking shoes. Kind Miss Stevens, who'd taught English for a thousand years, and who permitted us to write anything under the sun, as long as we spelled and punctuated it properly.

I started to read. Mr. Harris was silent. I croaked on. And then he did the most extraordinary thing: He burst out laughing. He hooted and guffawed so long and hard the tears streamed down his cheeks, and he had to blow his nose and mop his face. He loved it.

It broke the ice. Our teacher could smile and laugh the way ordinary people did. Imagine that! From that day on, we weren't so afraid of him. Some of the boys even visited his house now and again to hang out with him and his wife. They liked her a lot. And every one of us completed our seven books and big thesis. We were surprised by our own work. It was good. Finally we began to appreciate, just a little, what our teacher was doing for us.

Love? I'm pretty sure we didn't love him then. But as time went on, and some of us found we knew enough to be able to teach our freshman English classes in college, I think we began to love him. We wrote him letters from school. He didn't care much for the Midwestern university I'd chosen, out there in the vast unexplored plains beyond New England – the birthplace of true education, in his mind. I wrote him tongue in cheek about the day my horse pulled up lame on the way to class, causing me to miss an exam. He howled some more, I'm told.

We gave Mr. Harris credit when we moved up in our professions, often in part because of our writing skills. At reunions we talked about how much we owed him. Sometimes we wrote about him – in the best style and composition, of course.

Tough he was. But a milestone in our lives. A true gem of a teacher.

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