From the time when I was a little boy, growing up in Graves County, Kentucky, I have had problems with my reading and writing. Things never seemed to click for me, a trait that the teachers attributed to a mild case of dyslexia mixed with a healthy dose of attention deficit disorder. I knew, however, that no disorder was the cause of my distaste of reading and writing. Rather, there was nothing really interesting surrounding me that would grab my interest in the classroom.
The teachers I encountered never took any interest in what their students wanted to read or write; they developed assignments based on what the curriculum, a course of study developed by some politicians at the Board of Education, told them to do. This work was so far removed from what we, as students were experiencing in our own lives, and the assignments were so boring that they could have put an insomniac to sleep. However, my life changed the day I met my Junior English teacher, Mr. Clark Duncan.
Clark Duncan was an interesting man, especially when you contrasted him with the surroundings in Graves County. Most of the men in Graves lived their days in work clothes, with at least one article of camouflage attached to their outfits at any given time. Almost every jean pocket showed the wear from a Skoal can because no true Graves man would work or socialize without a dip in his mouth. The most common calls that the police received were from residents who were concerned because the neighbor’s cows had gotten loose and were standing in the middle of the road keeping them from getting to work at the tire plant. In short, my town and the surrounding county, were about as country as a town can be.
Everyone knew that when Mr. Duncan walked in, he must be from another place altogether. As he stepped over the threshold into my English class, his highly polished, patent leather wing tips were the first thing I noticed. This man was J Crew in a sea of Carhartt. He wore a tan, cotton suit which looked like something out of the Great Gatsby, and he glided across the floor with a smoothness that a person does not achieve when wearing a pair of Justin boots. His hair was parted and smoothed, almost like glass was shimmering on the surface, but, amazingly, he looked effortless and at ease within the confines of a classroom filled with the daughters and sons of plant operators.
While I may have been enamored of this new teacher, the quiet insults started almost immediately. I heard someone say, “What a fruit,” from the back of the room, loud enough for the class to hear, but just quiet enough for the teacher to be unaware of the declaration against his manhood. It didn’t help that Mr. Duncan was wearing a large tote bag to carry his books which amounted to a large handbag. Some students sniggered that they would be talking to their parents and getting out of the class immediately before Duncan’s gayness rubbed off on them. However cruel the other students were being, it all stopped when Duncan opened his mouth.
“Your county has some of the worst literacy rates in the state. According to your test scores, most of you can barely even read or write. I will be honest with you; I think that the current curriculum breeds stupidity and is only appropriate for people who aspire to complete mediocrity. I may only last one year, but I am, from this point forth, deciding not to follow the curriculum. You can leave your books under your desk, because you will not be needing them. In this class, we will dwell on our ability to think and communicate, not our ability to memorize the balcony speech from Romeo and Juliet. You have the option of leaving this class if you aspire to mediocrity and do not wish to be challenged.”
You could have heard a pin drop when Duncan finished his speech. Not a single person left the room, but I do not know if it is necessarily because they had a wish to be challenged by this new teacher. Rather, I think everyone was in shock. This man, who everyone had immediately decided must have been a sissy pushover, had just attacked the very foundations of our local educational system. There was no doubt that he was correct that we had been living in a haze of poorly-planned assignments and simple memorization tests, but no teacher had dared to question these methods before. We all knew that Duncan must have been something different.
In the weeks that followed, Duncan challenged every student sitting in that room. We had assignments to write essays analyzing the lyrics to Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, who Duncan described as “trippy.” Most had never even heard of these bands, and the fact that many of their lyrics did not appear to make sense freaked us all out. However, Duncan taught us to look below the surface to find how we, ourselves, could find meaning in the work by examining our past experiences.
We read Vonnegut and the Beat Poets and analyzed why we were all stuck in this box of sameness that our ancestors had lived for generations before us. We wrote journals about our fears and aspirations and, through sharing these, learned that many of the other students who seemed to different from us, were really sharing the same experiences. This was the first time in my life that I started to see reading and writing not just as an assignment to muddle through, but also a way to connect with the rich humanity which surrounded me.
Mr. Duncan was correct when he stated that he could only last a year at our school. After the school board caught wind of all of the things he had been teaching in his class, he was unceremoniously fired right when the summer began. The next year, we went back to memorizing speeches from Shakespeare, but Duncan forever left a mark on me as a student. I went from being a student who hated to read and write to a student who saw writing as a means to gain further knowledge of my fellow citizens of the world as well as further knowledge of myself. I am a better communicator in every aspect of my life because of Clark Duncan, the so-called “fruit” who took on the Kentucky educational system, singlehandedly.