The North Carolina Humanities Council's Linda Flowers Literary Award honors a work of original fiction, nonfiction or poetry for outstanding writing about North Carolina. Former state poet laureate Joseph Bathanti selected "O Beautiful Bug," poet John Thomas York's timely personal memoir, as the 2014 winner. The essay describes how an experience with a gifted teacher—a species endangered in North Carolina by regressive public education funding—led York to become one himself. The INDY is pleased to present the essay to the public for the first time.
O Beautiful Bug
When I was in high school, until I was seventeen, I had a secret, something I could feel and hear nibbling, gnawing inside. It was a persistent something hidden in a wooden lid, the lid of a chest locked away in a closet. I didn't know it, but I was waiting for someone to hear the gnawing and open the door, so I could find out what sort of creature was working its way to the surface.
When the secret was revealed, it also came with an assignment—one that would take decades to complete—and an obligation to speak out.
When I remember my adolescence, it seems that I lived in a continual state of either invisibility or mortification. The most embarrassing memories are associated with sports, which my father urged upon me when he visited on Sundays, usually taking me and my sister bowling. I tried PONY league baseball, and the grounders zipped past and the fly balls got nowhere near my glove. I warmed the bench when I joined the ninth-grade basketball team. Since I was nearly six feet tall, my father was sure that I would excel at basketball, but I didn't have the self-confidence required, and handling the ball hurt because of eczema-encrusted fingers, which I wrapped in Band-Aids.
My father's sport had been football. He was broad-shouldered and bulky, even in high school, and at five-six, the right shape for a lineman. I was skinny and lacked a rudimentary understanding of what football was about, thinking that all one did was squat before an opponent and charge like a ram when the quarterback grunted "Hut!"
My father bought me some cleats the August before my sophomore year and ordered me go to tryouts, which were already in progress. Reluctantly, I reported to the locker room, and the JV coach told me to go rummaging through a box and find my gear. I didn't know how to piece together pads, jersey, and pants and was too shy to ask for help. A junior noticed my confusion and gave me some advice. But when I got to the field, it was obvious that, if I were a Ram, the school mascot, I was a lost sheep. I think the coach was perplexed at my ineptitude; I remember his puzzled look when I missed a tackle and rolled in the dirt.
Fortunately, when I told the dermatologist about my trying out for football, he maintained that I had no business getting that dirty and sweaty, that playing football would exacerbate the eczema, which was obviously worse on my ankles and arms—a red, burning itch. On the phone, I delivered the doctor's pronouncement to my father, who was angry and quarrelsome, but my mother backed me up. She was the one having to pick me up from practice, after all.
Besides, I didn't want to be an athlete; I wanted to be a rock star. My cousins and I had a band, and I played guitar in our trio. We practiced in my uncle's basement every Friday night. We didn't get many gigs, hardly any at all, but that didn't stop us from dreaming.
I did a lot of dreaming—daydreaming, of course—instead of doing homework. Sitting in class or walking the halls of my high school, I was rarely engaged. I felt like the nearly invisible boy.
And I needed a job. I wanted to make enough money to buy a Fender Stratocaster, Eric Clapton's guitar. The only steady work after tobacco harvest was driving a school bus. Before the 1980s, all of the bus drivers in North Carolina were students. So I went through the training the summer before my junior year and got a bus driver's license. Come August, I got a route. No bus driver could finish his route and get back to school in time for practice—we parked the buses at our houses—so no more sports.
But junior year meant that I would have Mr. McNeill for English. Hayes McNeill was one of several young male teachers who commuted to Starmount High, in western Yadkin County, from Winston-Salem. It was 1970, and the U.S. was still deeply involved in Vietnam. Uncle Sam didn't draft teachers, who received a deferment for teaching three years, so McNeill had decided to postpone grad school.
Some of these guys were rather feckless, adhering to a lesson plan that read something like, "Have a jovial conversation with students and maybe mention the reading assignment." We students enjoyed the company of these fellows, and we didn't complain about academic laxity. But McNeill was different. He was notorious for giving failing marks to those who didn't show up prepared and who offered vague responses on his essay tests. He came to class ready to discuss American literature, and he didn't give a damn about last Friday's big game.
When I was a sophomore, I got the inside scoop from my Cousin Kathy, who was two years older and had Mr. McNeill for English and theater. She said he was "crazy," "cool" and "weird." He used big words. He liked classical music.
I remember attending the drama students' production of Ionesco's The Bald Soprano, a play that McNeill selected. Some guy was running around made up like Groucho Marx, and the characters had conversations that were a sort of verbal collage, a bit like deaf old ladies talking to each other at a family reunion. I didn't know what was going on, but I liked it. For me, all of the non sequiturs added up to something true-to-life.
And there was something else intriguing about Mr. McNeill; he sponsored the literary magazine, Green Salad. I knew I had to get to know this man.
I had a sneaking suspicion that I was different from the other guys: I enjoyed writing poetry. It started with song lyrics. My cousins and I felt that we had to write songs for our band, since all respectable rock musicians wrote their own songs. I had no talent for singing and soon forgot any tunes I crooned, but I had a notebook full of lyrics.
My curiosity piqued by a poem in a textbook ("in-Just / spring / when the world is mud- / luscious"!), I decided to try reading poetry on my own. Once, when I went with my mother to a Christian bookstore where she gathered supplies for Sunday school, I found a shelf of poetry books. There was an anthology of modern poets of America and Great Britain. How it found its way into this book store, I don't know; maybe a buyer liked Gerard Manly Hopkins and didn't bother to read Pound, Williams or cummings. I bought the book. I can't claim that I understood much of what I read, but I persisted until I found a few poems that sparked my plugs, poems such as cummings' "O Sweet Spontaneous" and Pound's "The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter" and Williams' "The Red Wheelbarrow." Vivid poems that took me to magical places, that reminded me of childhood's wild innocence and the world's strange beauty.
I often felt nostalgia for my childhood on the dairy farm, the farm that my parents sold when they separated, when I was 10. While the disintegration of their marriage was troubling and confusing, my strongest memories were of days when I was let loose to roam the world: watching the white egret which visited our pond every July; joining the sharecroppers' cookout in September, there among the pines, among tobacco barns—the bonfire, the firecrackers; riding a tractor with my father to go find the right Christmas tree, a red cedar in a sedge field; then listening in springtime to the peepers announcing the season along the creek in the blue evening; then summer again, my feet gradually getting calloused enough to endure stubble and a gravel road—such a load of memory, a world more vivid than my life at home or at school.
When I was seventeen, I didn't know where to begin, of course. I thought Mr. McNeill might offer guidance.
I liked Mrs. Parker, who taught U.S. History, and Mr. McNeill, and I always completed their reading assignments, while I neglected French, algebra, and chemistry—one teacher was as dull as a grease pit, while the other two followed the "chatting" lesson plan. When McNeill assigned selections from Walden, I had trouble with Thoreau's paradoxes, but I knew what Henry David meant when he told everyone to tolerate the boy marching to "a different drummer ... however measured or faraway." That was the metaphor that let me know that it was all right if I did not play football. It was just fine if I wanted to write poems satirizing hawkish attitudes toward Vietnam or describing a white egret, "poking into its reflection for fish."
In December, McNeill handed me a letter inviting me to forgo the second semester of junior English; instead, I would take the Contemporary Humanities Seminar—a course of his design— which would serve as an English credit. My mother gave me permission, and I joined a mixed group—sophomores, juniors, and seniors—for seminar discussions of contemporary writers: e. e. cummings, John Lennon, Denise Levertov, Leonard Cohen, Eldridge Cleaver, Wallace Stevens.
If the seminars were sometimes rambling, a bit too "sixties" in their insights, I still felt myself opening up to new ways of seeing things: No, we were not really helping the Vietnamese by killing children at My Lai or spraying the jungle with Agent Orange. No, we were not rectifying a racist past by simply integrating the schools. No, we were not doing our Christian duty by clinging to paternalistic traditions. Maybe my female peers should have more choices than my mother, whose father told her she could go to college to be a teacher, or she could stay at home.
The most important aspect of the class was the requirement that we present a creative project every Friday. For me, that meant writing at least one poem each week. These poems were often written in cummings' voice or sometimes in Whitman's style. Mr. McNeill looked past the imitative gestures and praised whatever was vivid or clever, often writing his characteristic word of approval, "Crackerjack!"
Then we published a literary magazine, Green Salad. Many of my poems appeared in this photocopied journal, edited by students and decorated with illustrations from McNeill's copies of The New York Review of Books. When I saw my words in print, the literary bug bit and bit hard. On the day Green Salad appeared, one of the cheerleaders, a beautiful red-haired girl named Pam, walked by, looked at me, and said, "You're a poet!" Since she had several poems in the magazine, I knew she was offering praise, not sarcasm. Finally, I was no longer invisible; a girl noticed me, though I was still impaired by a debilitating shyness.
On the last page of Walden, Thoreau describes a beautiful bug, long dormant in the leaf of a table but awakened by the heat of an urn, then hatched from its egg: "Who knows what beautiful and winged life ... may unexpectedly come forth from amidst society's most trivial and handselled furniture, to enjoy its perfect summer life at last!" The heat that helped me to climb out of my shell was provided by the unexpected appreciation of a few peers and the praise of an English teacher. Yes, I was a poet, and after I saw the shape and color of my wings, eventually I knew I was a teacher, too—my assignment for life.
And now that I have taught in the public schools for more than thirty years, I understand that it took a long time for me to learn how to write and how to teach. Marching to that "different drummer," I was ever a slow learner. But I always showed up for work, and most days I did my best to teach young people how to read and write and to see the significance of language and literature. And I was always there for the creative writers. Fred Chappell says that writers are often "the ones who weren't invited to the dance," and my students and I have had this tacit understanding. I read their poems and stories and teach them how to critique and revise.
Now, as I look forward to retirement, every day I see more evidence of a mean-spirited, short-sighted effort to starve public education in this state, an effort to drive away talented teachers. There are leaders who wish to cut funding for scholarships for potential teachers, as well as for textbooks and supplies. The same leaders want to stall pay raises—long overdue—until teachers are ready to give up tenure. Instead of raising salaries, some of our state senators and representatives would hand out vouchers and replace traditional classrooms with distance learning labs. Why would an intelligent young person want my job?
As for the current proposals: What if a student lives in Yadkin County, where I grew up, typical of many rural counties? In Yadkin, there is only one small private school, one affiliated with a conservative protestant church. The closest unaffiliated school, Forsyth Country Day, costs more than $20,000 a year. If I were a student now, I would not find a Mr. McNeill in the first school, and a voucher for $4,200 (the current offer from the state) would not pay for the first quarter at a school for rich kids—students who probably wouldn't offer a warm welcome to the son of a school teacher and a truck driver.
And distance learning is so ... distant.
I am not going to claim that nothing needs to be fixed when it comes to public education, that there are no inept administrators or teachers, no problems with overcrowding or safety, no schools ill-equipped for helping children living in poverty. Of course, education in North Carolina has never enjoyed a golden age—indeed, if there had been more pay and respect for the profession in 1971, my friend Hayes might have been tempted to stay in teaching. What I must claim is that we need to recruit, reward and encourage the best teachers we can, to give them up-to-date facilities and the resources they need, and then get out of the way.
Every student in North Carolina needs a Hayes McNeill, a man or woman who sees a child's potential, who believes in that student's individual talent and creativity, who hears a gnawing "under many concentric layers of woodenness in the dead dry life of society." (It's a miracle that nearly every school has such a teacher!) And as a society, we must learn to listen for the beautiful bug, something quieter than the noise of consumerism and the media's shallow racket, a "winged life" that will help us overcome the forces of complacency, conformity, prejudice ... Listen! Is it Morse code, or a language we all know? What's the message?
After growing up in Yadkin County, John Thomas York went on to earn degrees from Wake Forest and Duke and an MFA in Creative Writing from UNC-Greensboro. His poetry has appeared in numerous journals, anthologies, chapbooks and one full-length collection, Cold Spring Rising (Press 53). He is a winner of the James Applewhite Poetry Prize. Named the 2003 Teacher of the Year by the NC English Teachers Association, York lives in Greensboro and teaches at Penn-Griffin School for the Arts in High Point.