Two years ago today, the death of a favorite high school teacher shook me to the core. Maybe it was the suddenness of it — Mr. Duffy was only 51 when he died. Maybe it was the irony of it — as our freshman year English teacher, he was the one who taught us to "seize the day" and take the road less traveled by, since life was so short. Maybe it was that I didn't realize until he died just how much of an impact he made on my life.
I'm pretty sure Mr. Duffy would have scoffed at the idea of a blog post commemorating someone's life. Actually, I know he would have; he admitted it himself! More on that later. A novel, a short story, or a poem would have all been much more fitting ways to memorialize someone who spent 20 years of his life teaching Chaucer to high school girls. And Latin. And Creative Writing.
But a blog post is all I feel qualified to contribute on this subject. All I can share are my own small stories, my one perspective as a shy high-schooler who happened upon this teacher in the middle of his career. To round out the story, you would need the perspectives of the loud girls, the other teachers, the administration and parents, summer camp counselors ... and that’s just talking about his impact on Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart. That's not even counting his family, friends, church community, and all the other grown-ups who called him “Kevin” (sorry, he’ll eternally be “Mr. Duffy” to the rest of us). So a blog post, albeit a book-length one, it is.
There are a handful of people whose teachings, both overt and implicit, flit through my mind on a near-daily basis. Mr. Duffy is one of them. I've tried to distill my favorites into the list below. It wasn't easy, and I can't pretend I didn't well up quite a few times while writing this. Whether you knew him personally or you're reading this and thinking of a teacher whose lessons still carry weight in your own life, I hope you'll treasure these gems.
1. Adverbs are a crutch. Cut them at all costs!
I'm sure Mr. Duffy was reading Strunk and White's Elements of Style out loud when he taught us to strike adverbs from our writing and replace them with stronger words. He taught us to slash any words ending in "ly" with vigor and delight (not vigorously). Don't say it when you can show it.
In other words, don't write:
"'I don't know,' she said nervously."
when you can write:
"'I don't know,' she said, her eyes darting back and forth."
I try to apply this principle to both my writing and editing, especially when it comes to fiction.
2. Cut the drama.
Similar to his adverbial crusade, Mr. Duffy taught us to evade cliché and hyperbole, and pointed these out in our work whenever he could. In Creative Writing, I remember having one of my short stories read by the class just to have Mr. Duffy comment at the end, “don’t you think smashing that jar of coins from the window onto the sidewalk was a bit … oh I don’t know, melodramatic?”
I carry that bit of feedback with me any time I sit down to write something on the creative spectrum. Because much of what I write tends to be dark and ominous, it's imperative that I listen to that Duffy Melodra-meter (copyright pending) at all times.
He also taught us to be sparse with exclamation points (although I would have you count the number of exclamatory offenders in his note below). In so many ways, Mr. Duffy's critiques of my fluffy writing style prepared me for the no-nonsense professors who awaited me at the University of St Andrews.
3. Laugh at yourself (you're kind of ridiculous).
By this point, you may have gotten the idea that Mr. Duffy was a dry cynic who delighted in ripping our feeble work to shreds. Only part of that is true. He had a dry wit, and he had no qualms about giving us honest feedback. But he somehow managed to do all of this in a way that made us feel more self-aware, more clever, even more grown-up. I'm sure this was no easy task, given what he was working with (aka, a bunch of high school girls whose idea of fun is seeing if we can all fit under one golf umbrella).
When my friends and I reminisce about Mr. Duffy, one of us will inevitably bring up his laugh. I remember him reading one of the stories in David Sedaris’ “Me Talk Pretty One Day” out loud, not being able to hold back a deep laugh with his head thrown back. He had us read works that he seemed to genuinely enjoy teaching.
The rest of the time, though, that laugh was pretty much exclusively directed at us. He taught us to see the irony in our writing and in our 16-year-old selves.
I guess it's only fitting that after attending his wake at the school, my friends and I sneaked into his classroom and shared our funniest Mr. Duffy stories, sitting at the desks we had sat in just 10 years before. We mostly laughed, forgetting that he wouldn't be coming back to this room on Monday to teach a bunch of girls the same lessons he had taught us.
4. Remember how capable you are.
Thanks to Mr. Duffy, anyone who took his freshman year English class can still recite the first 18 lines of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Seriously; if you meet a Stone Ridge grad, just say "Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote" and I guarantee you she will respond "The droghte of March hath perced to the roote." And you will be very weirded out.
Beyond strange party tricks to be used to great effect in college, Mr. Duffy taught us many more implicit lessons. As with any high school teacher, especially one at an all-girls school, he had the unique task of teaching young adults going through one of the most insecure times of our lives. We were smart, we were unsure. We pushed boundaries, we hid within them. We talked of small things while dealing with hard things. He actually puts it much better below; just keep reading.
Mr. Duffy saw us for who we were — girls on the brink of great change. Girls who would march out of his doors more self-aware, more critical. Girls who could laugh at their own pretensions. Girls who one day would recall the shameful stories we turned in for our Creative Writing assignments and laugh.
5. Don't force growth.
Mr. Duffy once shocked us by declaring that he wasn't a huge fan of the movie “Dead Poets Society.” Particularly, he said he resented the scene in which Robin Williams’ character forces Ethan Hawke’s deathly shy character to create a poem in front of the class. “It was manipulative,” he said. “It went beyond a teacher's role.”
Then and still my favorite movie of all time, I was horrified. We had come to think of Mr. Duffy as our own Robin Williams, our Walt Whitman-spouting muse who would encourage us to great things, like standing on our chairs and crying “O Captain, my Captain!” But I don’t think Mr. Duffy ever aspired to change any of us. In his quiet way, I think he was trying to help us see ourselves as we really were, and what we could be.
I took Mr. Duffy's Creative Writing class two years after freshman year English. Sometime during that year, I remember him commenting that I seemed to be coming out of the shell he had observed in me before. There was no judgment as to my former shyness, no forced performance that turned me into the star of the class. Just an observation of growth, and a subtle encouragement to keep challenging myself.
In the Captain's Words
It's not really fair to talk about someone without giving them their say. I found an email that Mr. Duffy shared with a classmate who organized a class-wide gift once we learned of his cancer diagnosis. I figured an excerpt of this note would paint a much better picture for those of you who never had the chance to meet him this side of heaven. I actually didn't cut it down much, because I really want you to hear his voice. (For the record, I don't think it's OK to broadcast emails, letters, texts, etc., glibly just because someone has died, but he did request that this note be shared. OK.)
In a recent cleaning frenzy, I found my notes from Mr. Duffy's classes. I still had it all — my polka dot notebook, the handouts he photocopied for us on colorful sheets of paper, the soap opera-like stories my classmates and I submitted for feedback. I finally got rid of them. I could only do this with the help of Marie Kondo’s advice of hugging each item before I threw it away. I’m not kidding; I thanked each story for what it had brought me, for what Mr. Duffy taught me through it. Then I placed it into the recycling bin, grateful for a tidier home and mind.
With one exception. John Updike's short story "A&P" is still sitting on my desk. I'm not really even sure why, but that one pops into my head quite often. I imagine it will stay on my desk for a long time.
In all of this, I came across a few stories and authors that I now consider old friends, having forgotten that it was Mr. Duffy who introduced me to them in the first place. To close, I'd like to leave you with a nowhere-near-complete reading list of the ones I treasure the most.
- John Updike, “A&P" - short story
- David Sedaris, “Me Talk Pretty One Day” - short story collection
- Stephen King, “1408” - short story
- P. G. Wodehouse (not positive but I think it was excerpts from "My Man Jeeves")
- Flannery O’Connor, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" - short story (yep ... my all-time favorite writer!)
A delightful list of Shakespearean insults
You may think it's creepy to spend so much time on a blog post about an old teacher of mine, rehashing conversations, notes scribbled in the margins of essays, and stories he had us read. Maybe it's something you can only understand if you went to an all-girls school. You see, we didn't just appreciate our male teachers; we idolized them. We begged to hear stories from their past. We sought their attention and approval. We yearned to be noticed, called out.
Today is about calling out a teacher who made each of his pupils feel worthy, despite our lackluster attempts at being geniuses. He's still teaching me something, and I hope his words have taught you something as well. Even if it's just the acknowledgment that somewhere inside you, there's a Mr. Duffy story to tell.