To the Teacher Who Changed My Life

Thank you.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

Neal Tonken taught me English in 10th grade. He changed my life. He died last week. I don’t remember what he taught me about how to start an essay, but that’s the way he would have started it. 

He was clear and direct in his writing. Our first day of class in 1984 was his first day too. He’d been a lawyer and chucked it all to teach. He brought a bag of bread, a jar of peanut butter, and a jar of jelly. He asked us to describe how to make a sandwich. Then he read our instructions out loud, following along literally, placing the jar on top of the bag of bread. We’d forgotten basic elements like removing the bread from the bag or taking the lids off the jars. 

“Dear John, How nice to hear from you,” starts a letter he wrote me in 1991. “Don’t choose law.” Direct. Clear. My letter that prompted his response was the opposite. It was a mess of perfumery and words stacked on top of each other. If it had been an email, it would have triggered his spam filter. I’d just gotten my first job as a secretary and mentioned in passing I might try to either write or go to law school. His response was advice but also an example.

I’d written that letter to thank him. I learned later that lots of students had done the same.  “My interest in literature and learning started in your class,” I wrote. I can’t remember much from high school—too many sports concussions, maybe—but I can remember when that interest in learning arrived. After Mr. Tonken died, I thought maybe I’d imagined it, so I excavated the 30-year-old copy of Pride and Prejudice from my shelf and looked at my notes inside. 

I wandered lonely as a cloud in 10th grade. I wrote computer programs and played computer games and sports. My report cards from that period show that I glided along with only the mildest interruptions from applied effort. “John: Who are you? Where were you?” read the remarks next to the “unsatisfactory” grade I received from my upper school work program. “If the Upper School Office was, in fact, your Work Program Assignment this semester, it’s news to us here in the office!” Teachers did not react well to my posture. In middle school a math teacher responded to my good-faith effort at an answer by scoffing: “That’s like me asking you what color the blackboard is and you responding, ‘Fast.’ ”

The pages of Pride and Prejudice don’t look like they belong to the same kid. They are heavily underlined in red pen. There is writing in the margins. Mr. Tonken had made literature an adventure, throwing open trapdoors in the text in class to help us understand what was really going on. Actually, mostly he pressed us to do that for ourselves. This was not a class in which information was ladled over you. He expected you to go get it. He once asked who had read a poem we’d been assigned more than once. When no one in class raised her hand, he kicked us all out and told us not to come back until we’d read it at least twice.

He made you want to figure out what was happening in those books so that you could get as excited as he did, but you also wanted to see his reaction when you’d figured something out.

I wasn’t quite sure how to do this. Stories were just a series of events to me. But reading that Penguin edition of Pride and Prejudice in my third-floor bedroom, I finally figured it out. There was a lot going on behind all the walking in and out of drawing rooms. I got so excited, I read the 38-page introduction, which we had not been assigned.

In class on Monday, I was ready to deploy my revelations. The conversation started, and all the usual smart people spoke up. I didn’t quite know how to contribute—I did jokes and mumbling, not genuine observations. I wished to say something very sensible, but knew not how. And time was passing. When talk turned to blushing, I seized my opening. While reading the introduction I had underlined this passage: “it is perhaps not entirely irrelevant to note that Norman O Brown, following Freud, suggests that blushing is a sort of mild erection of the head.” I laid this knowledge on the class. 

Mr. Tonken looked at me like I had just spoken in Swahili. Was it that I had spoken at all? Or was it that I had chosen this particular piece of knowledge to make my first sortie? It didn’t matter. He was delighted to have another person in the conversation. I never left. His handwriting was the first other than my parents’ that I could recognize, because he wrote on my papers with such attention and care. He noticed that I somehow had come alive and wanted to make sure that flame didn’t go out. Thirty years later, it hasn’t.

But that was not Mr. Tonken’s greatest skill. A year or so ago in a conversation about my kids, he said, “Every student should have an adult they can tell their shit to.” (I can hear him say, “If that’s the word he used, that’s the word you must use.”) That’s the role he played in the two years after I had left his 10th-grade class. He was an ally, a co-conspirator, and the conversations were wide-ranging. It was important to have a restaurant that always had a table for you, he advised. His declarations always had the same cadence—the first part was spoken in a normal tone, and then he emphasized the words of the second part like he was putting down rivets.

Most of all he testified to the messiness of life. In high school a lot of people are trying to fix you and improve you and elevate you. Neal Tonken listened and affirmed that things were confusing. Because he loved passionately, spoke loudly (and occasionally out of turn), and found life overwhelming in both beauty and frustration, he understood what you were saying. What I was saying.

He did all of this without letting us off the hook. I got a C-plus each semester in his class. I might have been newly alive but I was messy, and it was no good to be alive if you couldn’t make something of that passion in a way that makes sense to other people. “His work suffers from lack of personal discipline and attention to detail,” is how he put it.

He had high standards and expected us to meet them. But we wanted to. He did not have much time for BS. In the tributes after his death, classmates remembered his comments when they tried to sneak something by him. Dan Manatt, now a documentarian, tried to loaf by with a paper on The Great Gatsby that used a lot of fancy words to cover up that he was winging it. “There’s much less here than meets the eye,” wrote Mr. Tonken. Sam Thomas, now a novelist, did the same thing on a paper. “This is pure fluff. If it weren’t well written it would be an F. D.”

After I moved back to Washington, Neal and I became friends. We celebrated his marriage and his 50th birthday. We had long dinners with our wives until the other tables were empty and busboys got grumpy. (This is why you need a restaurant that tolerates you.) He talked about his wife, Jancy, as glowingly as I had my crushes in high school, only his lasted a lot longer. He railed against one thing and another and he praised his current students for all the doors they were opening for him to the wonder and joy in the world. We’d lose touch for a few years and then meet up again with long hugs, mutual confessions of regret.

The last time I talked to Neal, I ran into him in a restaurant across the street from Sidwell Friends, where I went and which my kids now attend. I was with other parents about to go over for a meeting about our kids, and he was with fellow teachers. He’d retired by then after 29 years of teaching, and he’d been sick. I didn’t know. We stood arm in arm and said some things loudly and with a lot of laughter until he had to go home to rest. We promised that when the election was over and I was off the road we’d have another dinner.

Every time I saw Neal, I wanted to thank him. I often did. As I held his hand in the hospice bed a couple of weeks ago, I didn’t restrain the impulse until I thought he might wake up and tell me to knock it off. On my last visit, I was there with my friend Julia, who had been in that 10th-grade class and had a similar bond with Neal. Our senior year the two of us had taken him out to lunch to say thanks. Time telescoped very quickly in that room with just the three of us. He could only say our names. We sat on his hospital bed and couldn’t say much more. I was shaken and sad and felt vanishingly small—like in high school. I could have used someone to tell my shit to. 

Another student, who had graduated almost 20 years after I had, drove straight from Ann Arbor when she heard the news. She brought her Norton Anthology of Poetry. She came into the room to read him letters that were just arriving from students who heard he was ill. A special inbox had been set up, and it was filling rapidly. She read letter after letter from students who weren’t just recalling events from his class but how he had changed their lives too. The room filled up with grateful souls.

That was Neal’s last lesson. That example. To let us see life in that rich tally—an accumulation of gratitude deserved and expressed. I got a chance to thank Neal, and it makes me think of other teachers to whom I am grateful—Bonnie Mazziotta, Sally Selby, Juan Jewell, George Lang, Ellis Turner, Susan Banker, JoAnne Lanouette, Harold Kolb and Anthony Winner. I carry with me what they have given by their instruction and their example. Perhaps you have teachers like that in your life. Write them. Be clear and direct. Tell them “thank you.”