Our English teacher in my senior year was an elfish man called Hank. Hank looked like a kid who had snuck in among the teachers like a spy. Around school, he was a legend. We’d heard that he was crazy and that he kept a violin in his cupboard and played on it whenever he lost interest in teaching. We’d heard that he sometimes sat in his chair on top of his desk during classes. There were rumours that his wife was weird too and that Hank had to ride in the back of their car when she picked him up after school because their bulldog wanted to sit in the front.
None of these rumours prepared us for Hank. We arrived for our first lesson with some excitement, but Hank didn’t show up. We milled around, unsure whether to break down the classroom or kill one another. The next day he was there. He had his back to the class when we entered and was writing on the blackboard. He wrote with both hands at the same time, a different set of instructions down the left and right sides of the board. We filed in behind him and took up our seats. There was complete silence as we watched him. Even John, a boy who needed to talk in order to breathe, was quiet. I watched John as he sat next to me. We were in the back of the class, with the rest of the slackers, but John was speechless. When Hank had finished writing, he walked up and down the aisles between our desks and hummed to himself while we copied the assignments from the board.
After that first day we were powerless to do anything but receive from him. Like a hypnotist, Hank had opened us up. Our involvement with him was immediate, and personal. Early on he asked that we address him by name.
“Don’t call me sir,” he insisted. “It’s disrespectful.”
“I can’t call you Hank, sir,” John complained.
“Why not?” Hank asked and paused at John’s desk.
“Well,” John hesitated, “at home we have a parrot called Hank, sir. It’s going to be difficult.”
Hank smiled and returned to the front of the class.
“At home we have a toilet called john,” he said. “What do think we should do?”
Most of the time, Hank seemed unwilling to teach. Sometimes he was reading when we arrived and continued to do so even after we’d sat down. Once, he took his book and left. During some lessons he sat on top of his desk, in his chair, surveying the class like a tribal chief. Now and then, when the mood took him, he played his violin, probing at unfinished tunes we didn’t know. And always he wrote on the board in ways that defied imagination. He could write backwards, from right to left, and he sometimes turned and addressed the class while he continued to write behind his back. In this was his spell over us. Watching him at the board was like watching a street artist sketch out the unconnected lines that would shape a face. His writing freed us from the conduct of letters and made us literate for the first time.
When he taught, Hank did so with honesty and passion. Those parts of the syllabus he didn’t like, he paid scant attention. We did almost no grammar. He preferred literature, and his passion was poetry. Even so, he disliked Shakespeare.
“He was selfish,” he said. “He left nothing for us. But Eliot—or Williams, or Cummings—they’re incomplete. We can see ourselves in them.”
We did poetry on Fridays, just before the weekend. One Friday he was seated on top of his desk when we got there.
“Today,” he purred, “we’re doing something different. We should be dissecting some silly sonnet, but I’ve brought you something else instead.”
On our desks lay copies of a poem by Cummings, love is more thicker than forget.
“Today,” he went on, “we will violate Edward Estlin Cummings, as we’ve violated so many others before him. But today I ask a simple question: what is he trying to say?”
There were murmurs of dissent as Hank scanned the class for a volunteer.
“Sandy,” he asked a studious girl at the front of the class, “please read.”
“Thank God,” John whispered next to me.
Sandy got up, held the paper and read, “love is more thicker than forget / more thinner than recall / more seldom than a wave is wet / more frequent than to fail,” and read on to the last line, “is higher than the sky.”
Then she sat down.
“What is he trying to say?” Hank asked.
Sandy had an analysis ready. She mentioned how Cummings depicted love with childlike words, how he used contrast to show its many forms, how he used alliteration and metaphors, and how, she thought, he showed that love could never die.
“That’s good,” Hank said, “very good.”
He sat for a moment, as if lost in thought.
“Something is missing,” he mused.
Sandy looked dismayed.
“Read it again,” he said, “and tell me this: what is he trying to say?”
Sandy read again, more slowly this time. Then she folded and unfolded the poem along different lines.
“That, too, is good,” Hank said when she was done. “Still,” he added, “it isn’t quite right either. Read it again.”
Sandy read the poem again.
“What is he trying to say?”
Sandy looked ready to cry. She’d said all she could say about the poem, and still Hank wasn’t satisfied. She had failed.
“Just stay with me,” Hank calmed her, “will you? What is he trying to say?”
Of her own, Sandy read the poem again. Her explanation was shorter this time and had more to do with Hank than with the poem. She seemed lonely standing at her desk and the rest of us kept quiet.
“What is he trying to say?” Hank asked again.
“I don’t know,” she stuttered.
“You do,” Hank said. “Believe me.”
He said nothing after that. For twenty minutes there was silence as we read and re-read the poem, looking for the essence Hank had in mind. When the bell rang, Hank finally spoke.
“If we like Cummings,” he said and cleared his throat, “we must trust him. I asked what he’s trying to say, but maybe he’s said it already.”
He got up and stood next to his chair. Then he read the poem aloud, taking his time to savour each word. When he finished, he looked at us for a few moments before he spoke.
“That is what he’s trying to say,” he said. “Nothing more.”