In everyday speech, I don’t always choose my words carefully. Sure, I think about what I’m saying and reach into the depths of my intellect for powerhouse articulation, but sometimes, it’s all I can do to roll the thoughts off my tongue as quickly as they come to mind.
There was a man once who taught me about the power of language. Glen Gearhart, my high school English teacher. I think I took every class he taught in the Advanced Placement track. I graduated from North Farmington High School in 1989 and ever since, when I come across a “Gearhart word” – hoary, querulous – that’s exactly how I think of it. A word given to me by Mr. Gearhart.
His vocabulary tests were legendarily easy. Mr. Gearhart chose a list of 10 or 20 words, many of which held similar definitions. And then in the brilliance that was his and his alone, he assigned a one-word definition – often the SAME word – to explain what it meant. Easy to remember. Easy to get right.
Mr. Gearhart taught me that learning did not have to be an uphill climb and gaining knowledge didn’t have to come with obstacles or barriers or pages upon pages of hard-to-penetrate language and configurations. When I got to college at the University of Michigan and took a poetry class, I bristled when the professor told me my understanding of a poem was wrong. How could it be wrong if it was how I read it? Mr. Gearhart would never stand for that!
I ended up with an MFA in Poetry you know. Mr. Gearhart was right.
I never saw him after 1989 and every so often, I’d wonder where Mr. Gearhart was, what he was doing, whether he was wearing his gorgeous suits somewhere else in the world. I had fun in his classes. Once, when I was trying to get my parents to let me go to Cedar Point with friends, unchaperoned, Mr. Gearhart helped me write a compelling speech that considered my parents’ perspective but was ultimately so persuasive that they had to let me go.
They didn’t. But before my mother said her definitive NO, she said, “That was a great speech!”
And so, when I read in the newspaper a few weeks ago that Mr. Gearhart had passed, I felt a pang in my chest – of memories, of mourning, of profound impact.
I posted on my Facebook page that he would be missed and immediately classmates posted their memorial replies:
from Susan Gartenberg, a NFHS parent: When did he pass away? We all loved him!
from Philip Siegel, class of 1990: Oh no! Truly one of the greatest teachers, both in and out of the classroom.
from Rachel Satz Robinson, class of 1988: He was my favorite teacher of all!
from Darcy Lockman Kingsley, class of 1990: Saw the obit in the Free Press online yesterday. Certain vocabulary words (garrulous and hoary, to name a couple) will always bring Mr. Gearhart to my mind. He was a lot of fun.
from Alicia Schlitz: Oh how sad! I loved Mr. Gearhart … him and his crazy vocab words.
And even a friend who did not know Mr. Gearhart read my post and said, “It made me think of my favorite teachers.”
I called Mr. Gearhart’s lovely widow to let her know how much he influenced my development as a person. I have been a professional writer for 20 years and I believe that in a large part, Mr. Gearhart’s teachings and leadership gave me the confidence to find my voice and carve out my own path.
Mrs. Gearhart invited me to say a few words at his memorial luncheon. I would have loved to attend but I will be scaling mountains in western Canada then. In a way, he taught me to do that, too.