Many of us have often encountered a teacher who encourages what we do and gives us hope that what we want to do is not such a bad idea after all. Author Dave Eggers talks about his teacher Jay Criche from Lake Forest High School.
About two months ago, we lost a great man. His name was Jay Criche, and he was a teacher.
I took his course when I was a junior, and the first book we read was A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. In those first few weeks, he showed us a caricature of James Joyce from the New York Review of Books. In it, Joyce’s hands were rendered large, cupped and moving, as if paddling through water. Mr. Criche asked if anyone knew why the artist had depicted Joyce that way, and I raised my hand. “Is he swimming through a stream of consciousness?”
Mr. Criche cocked his head a bit, confirmed the answer, and a wave of validation swept over me. I hadn’t known, until that moment, how badly I’d wanted his approval.
After that, I took it upon myself to impress him. Though William Faulkner wasn’t assigned reading, for weeks I brought As I Lay Dying to class, stacked neatly upon my other books, hoping he’d notice. (He didn’t.)
He was kind to me, but I had no particular sense that he took particular notice of me. There were other, smarter, kids in the class, and soon I fell back into my usual position — of thinking I was just a little over average in most things. But near the end of the semester, we read Macbeth. Believe me, this is not an easy play to connect to the lives of suburban high schoolers, but somehow he made the play seem electric, dangerous, relevant. After procrastinating till the night before it was due, I wrote a paper about the play — the first paper I typed on a typewriter — and turned it in the next day.
I got a good grade on it, and below the grade Mr. Criche wrote, “Sure hope you become a writer.” That was it. Just those six words, written in his signature handwriting — a bit shaky, but with a very steady baseline. It was the first time he or anyone had indicated in any way that writing was a career option for me. We’d never had any writers in our family line, and we didn’t know any writers personally, even distantly, so writing for a living didn’t seem something available to me. But then, just like that, it was as if he’d ripped off the ceiling and shown me the sky.
Over the next ten years, I thought often about Mr. Criche’s six words. Whenever I felt discouraged, and this was often, it was those six words that came back to me and gave me strength. When a few instructors in college gently and not-so-gently tried to tell me I had no talent, I held Mr. Criche’s words before me like a shield. I didn’t care what anyone else thought. Mr. Criche, head of the whole damned English department at Lake Forest High, said I could be a writer. So I put my head down and trudged forward.
I don’t want to make this remembrance about the state of teachers in America, but Mr. Criche’s passing came just when teachers are at their most vulnerable, at a time when they’re fighting to assert and retain the dignity and artistry of their work. I don’t remember Mr. Criche teaching us how to take standardized tests, but when we took them, we did well. I don’t remember Mr. Criche gearing his lesson plans toward any state-regulated curricula, but we did pretty well on any and every scale. Why? Because he made us curious. He was curious, so we were curious. He was hungry for learning, so we were hungry, too. He made us want to impress him with the contents of our brains. He taught us how to think and why.