“Frenetically,” he repeated to us, the word bowling over the classroom and sending each one of us into a stun. I had never encountered a teacher with so much command. He shook me to my very core, and within five minutes of meeting him I had questioned my own intellect and manhood countless times. (Who would ever use the word “frenetically”? Why is he talking like that? I don’t think I belong here…) I didn’t know how big of an impact Mr. Berry would have on me, but my high school English teacher molded my mind and my attitude in ways I still can’t fully appreciate. Yesterday I found out that he’s gone, and I’m left wishing that I told him how much he meant to me while I still had the chance.
I entered my junior year of high school as most did – with an overbearing amount of self-confidence and not the faintest clue what I was going to do with my life. I actually thought I was going to be studying math through college, at whatever school would have taken a kid who wasn’t involved in extracurriculars and had a solid “almost B+” average tied to him. I needed to start stockpiling the AP credits though, and since my high school’s inexplicable prerequisite structure wouldn’t allow me to take AP Statistics until senior year, I turned to AP English: Language and Composition.
And that’s where I met Mr. Berry (I’m not going to refer to him by his full name because he is and will always be “Mr. Berry” to me). And that’s where Mr. Berry scared me straight. He was the first teacher that legitimately made me question my presence in his classroom. Not because I wasn’t worthy of being there, but because I had to actually work to keep pace with him. I had to try. I never had to try before. But if I didn’t try for Mr. Berry, he would sniff me out in a split second and call me out just as fast (in the form of reading a sub-par essay aloud to the class, of course). He wouldn’t punish us for getting something wrong or for having an inaccurate interpretation. Just for not trying.
Under his tutelage, I progressed more as a writer and an editor and an assessor of my own work and my own efforts than at any other point in my life. That spread beyond my writing and into the way I looked at myself in all facets. I can almost guarantee that the magnitude of Mr. Berry’s impact was due largely in part to these being the transformative years of my life, but I know he would have had an influence on me whenever I encountered him. He was that kind of guy. He didn’t just grade my papers and hand them back to me. He poured his emotions out onto my papers through his commentary, just as much as I had opened up through my writing. He loosened me up. Let me be free with my writing. Let me be confident in what I was presenting. They were my thoughts on the page, and it didn’t matter what those thoughts were as long as they were well crafted.
My friend and I were talking about Mr. Berry yesterday after he told me the news of his passing. He mentioned a grammatical* correction that Mr. Berry instilled in him that he still executes today. It’s amazing the kind of legacy someone can leave behind without even knowing it. Just by encountering us at a time in our lives when we were most receptive to those life edits, Mr. Berry has stuck with us through the years and will likely always stay with us.
*My friend texted me to correct me that it was a stylistic correction, not a grammatical one. That he demanded the differentiation stinks of Berry’s influence.
What’s making this difficult for me, and what’s making me write this in the first place, is that I always wanted to tell him how much his guidance meant to me. He led me to join the school newspaper, which led me to apply to journalism school, which led me to get out of journalism school as quickly as possible (and into public relations) and ultimately brought me to my job and my life today. He made me passionate about writing and the expression of thought, and there’s not even a consideration that I might be where I am today if I didn’t have Mr. Berry for that one class, 10 years ago.
He probably never knew that. It’s one of my honest-to-God biggest fears that people will leave this life, or perhaps even I’ll leave this life, and there will be words and emotions left unspoken. And here I am, compiling a group of thoughts I should have presented to him, but instead am presenting to everyone but him. There are plenty of situations in life where you don’t have the chance to express feelings to someone, or perhaps it was just never appropriate to. This isn’t one of those times. I had a decade to tell him what he meant to me. I don’t recommend that any of you learn this lesson through experience.
Last month I dug through my closet trying to find my binder of writing samples from that school year. I know I have them somewhere, but I couldn’t locate them on this venture. I even started to write a blog post called “I Can’t Find My Blue Binder,” that would cover that time in my life and how important those pieces of work were to me. On the back of my final paper in that binder was a note from Mr. Berry. It was a genuine commentary on my work and progress as a writer, along with his e-mail address to get in touch some day.
I just never got around to e-mailing him.