Steve Henn was so inspired by his teacher’s compassion for others, he followed in his footsteps.
I’ve always imagined memorializing the most important teacher in my life with a great, grieving, dramatic flourish, in a letter to the Warsaw Times-Union, on the day he leaves this veil of tears for whatever does or doesn’t lay beyond.
That’s the way it is here in small-ish town Indiana. Some pillar of the community goes, someone suitable writes a letter extolling their virtues. It’s happening now with the venerable former Owen’s grocery store owner Joe Prout. It probably happened when my dad kicked the bucket unexpectedly in 1991 when I was a skinny 15-year-old smartass.
As far as pillars of the community go, longtime Warsaw Community High School English teacher Jack Musgrave is certainly a rarity. He’s not a prominent member of the Chamber of Commerce, local government, or the Orthopaedic industry. He is not known to attend church (a sort of pillar-of-the-community prerequisite in this part of Indiana). He’s divorced (gasp!). And he’s the best damn high school English teacher Warsaw has ever known.
My friends and I all loved Jack when we were kids. There was a sort of cult of Jack. We mythologized the man. He had the singular ability to make every kid – and I mean every, single, stinking kid he worked with, feel like they were valuable, and worthy of love, and worthy of a listening audience. Jack went out of his way to reach out to kids that other teachers would label “bad kids” and write off for whatever reason, sometimes justified, sometimes a little too harsh, for my way of thinking, in judging teenagers. Long before it was (locally) culturally widespread to treat gay kids as human equals, Jack did. Skaters and punks who found themselves having to stand up to assholes who unfairly benefitted from the saintly glow imparted by athletic excellence, Jack believed in when no one else would.
He saved my closest writer friend from being kicked out of school on a last straw. Then he told my buddy to straighten up and fly right. And because Jack was someone we all listened to, Oren did. Another friend found himself illegally smoking in a back corner parking lot when Jack walked up, lit up a stogie (returned essays always smelled like cigars), and said, “I understand why you have to skip other teacher’s classes. Why do you have to skip my class?”
From then on, Jay waited until he’d been through English if he was going to skip school.
In the late 1970s, as my family was moving to Warsaw from South Bend, there was a book burning fiasco locally that made national news. Jack always says it was more about labor disputes than about censorship – there was a teacher strike, and some school board members responded by making a stink about certain book choices. Jack was one of the few teachers who stood up to them who they couldn’t run out of town. They told him he’d never make administration after that, but I doubt he cared. I can’t imagine him feeling comfortable in a four-walled windowless room where he handed out detentions rather than using books and writing to teach kids to think.
My angsty, weird teenage poetry was quite possibly one of the strangest things to cross his desk to be perfumed by his cigars, but Jack was only encouraging. And I was not a good teenage poet – if such a thing exists. I’d meet with him after school to discuss what I was putting down. The most important thing he did was encourage me to keep writing. My first collection (Unacknowledged Legislations, NYQBooks 2010) is dedicated to Jack. My third (Indiana Noble Sad Man of the Year, Wolfson Press, probably 2016) is still touched by his influence.
I got to teach for two years at the high school I attended while Jack was still teaching. He continued to provide essential guidance. I got a quite a lot of help from quite a few colleagues in my department that is still essential to my development as a teacher, but nothing beat walking around to Jack’s room to kick around ideas on how the hell I could convince Johnny to give the next book a chance.
I try to emulate his best qualities, but I can’t really compete. Jack was always kinder, wiser, more insightful, more gentle with his students than I find myself being. I’m a harsher critic of their writing. I don’t light upon the right words to say to motivate them nearly as much as he did. I sort of feel like Sean Lennon must feel this way. Jack’s qualities are an impossible ideal to measure up against as a mere mortal. But I’ll always be glad I had the good fortune to be touched by, and learn from, his courage and grace.