The best teacher I ever had died yesterday. 66, cancer. He was a legend in our little suburb, the kind of teacher that teenagers tell their younger siblings stories about, and then those siblings grow up and realize that all of the stories are actually true. If he caught you with a cheat sheet, he’d proofread it, correct any errors and slip it back where he found it. If you were doodling in class, he’d pull his tie up onto his forehead like a bandanna, yell out “Staple Man!” in a trademarked rising inflection, and then proceed to staple all of your folders together, and all your papers in them. When my first beard failed into muttonchops he started calling me Thoreau. He threw erasers at us and we love him for it.
But it was Anthony Ruggieri who taught me to actually enjoy Hamlet and Grapes of Wrath, and that writing essays can be fun if you stay facetious. He didn’t care what I wrote, as long as I wrote it well, and made a reasoned argument, and so I started writing essays about things like occult zoophilia in Tess of the Durbervilles (apparently she had a thing for the cows), the more absurd the more he liked them.
It never occurred to me that I might like writing before I took his AP English class. Even then, as with all of Ruggieri’s tricks, his real methods were subtle — he was like an illusionist, all flashes and bangs and bawdy humor, then suddenly the assistant is sawed in half. Every week, without really talking about it, he wrote some phrase on the wall as a writing prompt. All you had to do was write something about it, and you got an extra credit point. It didn’t matter what you wrote; it could be three sentences, it could be handwritten in the hall on your way to class. I wasn’t an English person — science and math were my strengths — but I was competitive as hell, and I liked getting 127% as a quarterly grade, so I did them every week. I’m still not sure when that assignment turned from something I half-assed for the easy credit into something I loved doing every Thursday night before it was due — but that’s where the poetry seed was planted. If it wasn’t for Ruggieri, who knows where I’d be right now. It probably wouldn’t have been here, with a blog and a poetry mag. I probably wouldn’t even have met me poet-wife.
And we didn’t even have a special relationship, Ruggieri and I — his memory looms this large in thousands of lives. His obituary page is already full of comments, many from names I know, that I haven’t seen in years, others who were students when I was still in diapers. What more could you want from a life? More time, I guess.
As I started growing into a literary-type, I tried to contact him a few times — when I switched from a biochemistry major to English, I swung by the high school and learned that he’d just retired. After I started working for Rattle, I called the school, asking for his address, so I could send him some copies, but they wouldn’t give it out, and wouldn’t forward a package. He wasn’t listed in the phone book. As American Fractal neared its release date, I put out a few new queries, trying get in touch through a friend of a friend, that sort of thing. But I’ve been dragging my feet, really, not going to too much trouble, and now it’s too late. Our fearful trip is done.
When I took the AP exam in the spring, he told everyone in our class that he would punch me if I didn’t get a 5, and part of me believed him. By the time we got our scores, and I found out I only got a 4, school was over, and I never saw him again — except in his car on election day, a kind of phantom leaving the parking lot as I was entering to vote for the first time, of all things. So now I guess I’ll never know for sure.