Friday, July 15, 2011

The man who taught me how to write

When I published my first book a few years ago, I sent a copy to my tenth grade English teacher, James Todd King. Mr. King - Todd, or JTK as I came to know him later on - was perhaps the most influential teacher I ever had. Cool and funny and tough, he loved literature and gave that love away freely to his students, many of whom maintained contact with him long after his early retirement, brought on by illness. Mr. King could tear apart an essay and help you to build it back up again. From him I learned argumentation, analysis, grammar and style, skills that have benefitted me throughout my life.

So after I published that book - an ethnographic account of my research in an urban neighborhood of Cochabamba, Bolivia - I sent him a copy, which I inscribed as follows:

"For JTK, who taught me how to write. With best wishes," etc.

Shortly after sending him the book, I received the following email:

"Thumbnail review from last night's scan and plunge approach: This is no dry academic text whatsoever. Full of colorful anecdotes, both the macabre and joyous terror of these Latino 'outliers' is fully felt…It is a good book, Dan, that I read for an hour too long last night. I'm proud of you. JTK"

It was not long afterwards that word came that JTK had passed away, far too young and too soon. I think about him often.

It is a year later and I am again in Bolivia, now running a study abroad/service learning program for undergraduates. Students are reading and discussing my book. As I circulate around the classroom, eavesdropping on their small-group conversations, I notice that one student's copy of the book is swollen and frayed from water damage that her luggage experienced courtesy of American Airlines. The book also bears a large yellow "USED" sticker, indicating that she bought it secondhand, perhaps through Amazon or some other online dealer. Drawn to the oddly misshapen text, I pick it up and open it to the first page. And there I see it, my very own inscription:

"For JTK, who taught me how to write."

I stare at the page in dumb disbelief. The floor seems to tilt beneath my feet and I gasp for breath, struggling to make sense of what I hold in my hands. Across thousands of miles and a million strands of possibility, the very text that I had given to my friend and teacher has somehow found its way back to me. Why did I even pick up that copy and flip through the pages? Had the book itself somehow sought out the pool of water in the plane's cargo hold, just to warp itself and so call itself to my attention? Had it left JTK's library after he no longer had need of it, to bring him so strongly to my mind, so far from and yet so near to its origins?

I cannot, of course, answer these questions, and don't know what to make of this phenomenon. But holding this inscription again, this gift that has returned to me across unfathomable time and space, I feel joy, sadness, and deep gratitude.

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