- Cathy Resmer
The Because Project asks Vermonters to share their stories about people and experiences that have shaped their lives, especially during their formative years — stories that may inspire others to get involved. Because together, we can all make a difference.
I decided to be a writer because of an English teacher I had in the 7th and 8th grade.
John Keith was a tall, Nordic-looking guy who wore turtlenecks and loved to ski. He was always drinking coffee, even back in the 1980s, before drinking coffee was cool. He was one of the few people I knew in suburban Detroit who had the audacity to drive a foreign car — a Volkswagen Jetta.
Mr. Keith was the toughest teacher I ever had, tougher than any of the English professors who taught me in college. Each marking period, he gave his students the chance to earn 100 points. Your final point total was your grade. If I lost five points on the first test, I spent the next few weeks living in fear of losing any more, and hence dropping from an A to a B.
The only way to get extra credit was to win a sentence-diagramming contest. Mr. Keith would send several students to the blackboard at the same time. Then he'd have them race to diagram a sentence full of clauses and obscure parts of speech. The first person to do it correctly won a point. What a victory! You could boost your grade, but you really had to work for it.
Mr. Keith was critical. He corrected students' writing assignments in front of the class and picked apart mistakes, usually without using names. But he wasn't bitter or angry; when we wrote sentences he liked, he read them aloud, as if to savor them. He loved language and literature, and he wanted us to love it, too. Some days he just read to us. He gave me my first taste of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Robert Browning. In the winter, he organized after school ski trips to a nearby mountain. He helped me see that there was a larger world beyond the familiar, comfortable one that I knew.
I don't think I was one of his favorite students; I'm not even sure that he liked me. It didn't matter. He was the first teacher who really pushed me. He used to tell us that we could study English all the way through college and still not master it. I liked that challenge. And I liked knowing that if I worked hard enough, I could write something that would matter to somebody like him.
I wrote him several letters explaining what his teaching meant to me, but I never mailed them. I was too afraid of how he would pick them apart! I've always regretted that because he died while I was in college. I've reconnected with many of his former students, and we all still remember him so vividly. He was just doing his job, but he changed our lives.