Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Teachers Who've Influenced Me

The more time I spend writing the Golden Retriever Mysteries, which are set in a version of my home town, the more I find the teachers who made an impression on me dropping in.

Part of it is the setting, of course. Stewart’s Crossing is a small town in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, just up the Delaware River from Philadelphia. In my mind, it’s just north of the town where I grew up, Yardley, and has a lot in common with my one-time home. 

There are now two PHS campuses. I went to the "east" one.

Main Street, Ferry Street, Canal Street, and the single traffic light in the center of town, for starters. The Friends Meeting House, the mill pond, even the tiny gingerbread Victorian that housed the local library when I was a kid. My hero and his best friend, the local police detective, went to Pennsbury High, as I did.

The secondary setting for the books is Eastern College, my hero’s alma mater, where he returns to work after a divorce and a brief incarceration for computer hacking. Schools are great places for second chances. I teach at a community college myself, and many of my students have returned to study after family drama, illness, even incarceration.

When Steve comes home, one of his first jobs is as an adjunct professor in the English department at Eastern. I get to use a lot of my own experiences and I have fun with the names of his students – Barbara Seville; Dezhanne, Cynnamon and Felae; football players Juan Tanamera and Jose Canusi.

Maybe it’s all that focus on education that keeps reminding me of my own teachers. Mr. Norman Haider, my tenth-grade English teacher, who assigned us to read A Separate Peace by John Knowles the year the movie version came out. I fell head over heels for that book, and when Mr. Haider told us to “rewrite” the book from Finny’s point of view, I discovered that writing was a way for me to explore my own feelings and what matters most to me. I’ll forever be grateful to him for that, and I’ll always remember the white patent leather belt and matching shoes he wore!

Other teachers pop up as well. There’s a strong Quaker tradition in Pennsylvania, and many of my teachers were Quakers. 

My ninth-grade English teacher, Mrs. Ash, was a Friend, and some of her gentle nature comes out in my Quaker characters. 

My social studies teacher in eighth grade, Mrs. Shea, was equally kind and generous, and her name pops up as one of my hero’s teachers.

Other teachers pop up in different ways. When I speak at conferences or give readings, I’m often told that I have a great speaking voice. 

That’s thanks to Mr. Kelly, who coached our Forensics team in high school. I studied speech with him and participated in competitions in extemporaneous speaking and dramatic reading. Obviously that paid off! 

Finally, there’s a message I got on Facebook the other day from one of my former students, who wrote, “You truly are the best English professor at Broward.” I hope I’m keeping up the tradition my own teachers established.

And by the way, the sixth of my golden retriever mysteries, Dog Have Mercy, is now available for pre-order on Amazon. It’ll be on sale there, and at lots of other places where ebooks are sold, as of February 2.

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