Reporter’s Notebook: The teacher who changed my world
In our series, School Matters, we’ve been documenting how great teachers can help students chart a path to a better life and career. In this Reporter’s Notebook, “CBS This Morning” co-host John Dickerson remembers a teacher who changed his world.
Neal Tonken taught me 10th grade English. He died three years ago. He’s why I became a writer. He encouraged short sentences.
He’d been a lawyer, but in class, he was a hanging judge.
He once assigned us a poem and when no one could define a word from the poem in class, he kicked us all out and said, “Come back when you’ve read it.” On one student’s paper he wrote, “There is less here than meets the eye.” On another he wrote, “This is pure fluff.”
Because he wrote on my papers with such attention and care, his was the first handwriting other than my parents’ that I could recognize.
The point was excellence, but he would have hated that buzzword. He was tough because we were on an adventure and he wanted us to have a sharp searchlight. In passages he’d show us the hidden trap doors and he wanted us to make our own excavations.
He made you want to bring in those clumps of gold you’d found in your reading at home. And that’s when the switch was thrown for me: in March of 1985 with “Pride and Prejudice.” How do I know? Because I still have the book and the markings inside are like a treasure map.
I never got better than a C+. I told you he was tough. But I got that searchlight.
We became friends after school. Our dinners with our wives lasted long after the busboys had gone home.
When he got sick, former students came like the class bell had rung. I reunited with my friend Julia. Thirty years before, we’d taken him to lunch to say thank you. We had to say thank you one last time.
Another woman drove across the country to sit by his bed and read emails of gratitude from two decades of students.
At his funeral a former student stood and recited the Canterbury Tales and we all joined him. And that was Neal’s final lesson, the example of a life that can blossom into that kind of gratitude. So thank you, Neal.
And if you have a teacher like that in your life, you might want to go find them and say thank you to them, too.
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