Teachers – like kids – say the darnedest things

That great gust of wind – think a Wizard of Oz-sized tornado – you just felt was the collective exhalation of parents everywhere: Their children are finally back in school. Yup, those back-to-school sales that began in July are now a distant memory because our kids really are back in school.

And while Art Linkletter reminded an earlier generation that “kids say the darnedest things,” teachers aren’t slouches either when it comes to offering the darnedest advice. Here are some of the things that teachers and professors have shared with me or my classmates over the years that I’ll never forget.

When I was a fifth grader in Stamford, Connecticut, one of my classmates admitted that she was scared of thunder. Our teacher reassured her by explaining, “Thunder is just a noise. It’s not the thunder that’s going to kill you: It’s the lightning.”

When I was a seventh grader, my English teacher was reading from a grammar textbook that was going to help us understand the difference between subjects and objects. The passage he read ended with this sentence: “Father is laying tile on the kitchen floor.” He paused and then said, his tone happily bemused, “Tile. What an interesting name for Mother.” I never again confused an object with a subject in a sentence.

Just before I started eleventh grade, my family moved from Miami, Florida to Bronxville, New York. On my first day in a course on foreign policy and international relations, I must have asked the teacher one too many questions about her grading policy and expectations. “You are going to grow into a man with serious sexual performance problems, you realize that, don’t you?” she said to me in front of the class when she saw me raise my hand once again.

When I was a sophomore in college in Amherst, Massachusetts, I wanted to take a creative writing seminar with the school’s visiting novelist. My mother was a huge fan of the woman’s work. To determine who would be among the few, the proud, and the chosen, prospective students had to submit a short story. She read mine over the December holidays and then, in early January, summoned me to her office in the brick monolith that housed the English Department.

When she saw me in the entrance to her office, she beckoned me in. My story sat on the putting green expanse of mahogany that served as her desk. She slid it over to me as if it were road kill. “I have three words for you,” she said. I waited. I knew this wasn’t going to be good. After a moment that seemed to last a very, very long time, she advised, “Be a banker.”

Now, this was especially disheartening counsel because only a semester earlier I had nearly failed the school’s introduction to economics. How did my econ professor try to cheer me up? “I really wouldn’t worry,” he said to me. “I see your byline in the school newspaper all the time. It’s not like you’re going to be a banker.”

Finally, there is this. The pop star Jim Croce died in a plane crash when I was in middle school. One of his biggest hits was a ballad that was at once wistful and a little saccharine: “Time in a bottle.” My English teacher was devastated when he died. But she also knew that I wanted to be a writer and so she pulled me aside after class and said, “It’s just so sad that he has no more time. That’s irony. That’s a story. Sometimes, irony is exactly what a great story is about.”

I think about that observation a lot – and the fact that she took the time to share it with me. My daughter has had some terrific teachers like that over the years. My wife had some, too.

So, as the summer ends and the school year begins, I raise my glass to say thanks to those life-changing teachers who know that sincerity can be as memorable as snark.

(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on September 1, 2013. Chris’s new novel, “The Light in the Ruins,” was published this summer.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.