Today I taught my senior English class a lesson on my literary crush.
I’ve been carrying a literary torch for this guy for about 30 years.
Years ago, in my sophomore year in college I signed up for a required English literature class. I wasn’t at all excited about 18th century literature, so I gritted my teeth and settled in for what I thought would be a very dull ten weeks.
I found out right away what a difference it makes when your professor is bursting with passion for his subject. Dr. Max Byrd loved the writers we studied so much, it seemed like he had just come back from chatting with them at the literary salon. He bubbled over with their ideas and talked about their work as extensions of the lives they’d led.
One writer he couldn’t stop talking about was Dr. Samuel Johnson.
Over the course of the class I fell in love with Samuel Johnson. I didn’t see this coming. Most of my exposure to English literature to that point had been Shakespeare, Jane Austen and the Brontes. Samuel Johnson hadn’t written any novels or any plays I’d seen, so he wasn’t on my radar.
Samuel Johnson became a real person to me. Dr. Byrd talked about Johnson’s laziness and his inability to live up to his own standards, which I related to very much. Johnson, with his foibles, physical impairments and grand ideas, became very human to me. I had never learned to read literature this way—through the lives of those who wrote it. It brought deep philosophical readings like Johnson’s Rasselas to life.
Dr. Byrd wanted us to be excited about what we were reading. He said something like this once in class: “I want you to feel so strongly about the ideas we’re discussing that you’re willing to get into fisticuffs over them.” My boyfriend at the time, who was also in the class, thought that was hilarious and intriguing. I remember him going to office hours to ask Dr. Byrd what that meant.
A decade after Dr. Byrd’s class, my husband (not the boyfriend in the class) and I traveled to London for my work. I told my husband I needed to see see Johnson’s house on Gough Street. It felt amazing to be able to see the home of my literary crush, the place where he’d spent ten years writing his dictionary of the English language.
But the biggest reward from Dr. Byrd’s class was today, when I was able to teach my students about Samuel Johnson myself.
I could not have foreseen thirty-odd years ago that I would ever be a teacher, but two years ago I began teaching high school English on a contract basis for a charter school. All that I learned as an English major and never thought I’d use is coming back to me. I’m finding that I am teaching literature through the lives of the writers as well. I tried my best, as Dr. Byrd did, to resurrect Samuel Johnson for my class, to let them see him as the unusual, gifted and flawed person he was. The wit, the thoughts and ideas that made Johnson great came pouring out of me in that weirdly effortless way that happens when you’re talking about something you love.
I love that teaching is like a chain: we teach what we’ve been taught, carry on the best that we’ve been given.
Thank you, Dr. Byrd. It felt amazing to pass on the gift today.