Left: Thom in class looking at student work. He stood well over 6 feet tall.
Thom Smith was a high-school English teacher. He was my teacher when I arrived from California as a new student for my senior year in a suburban Chicago high school. He wasn't my first mentor; he wasn't my last mentor. He did save my life. He's the reason every morning I'm grateful that I've had mentors. He's the reason I started teaching artists residencies in the public schools. He's the reason I've worked in mentor programs. He transformed my understanding of writing as a craft and he transformed the way I keep journals: simply put, he gave me tools to follow my passion.
I almost didn't meet Thom. When I met with a counselor at my new school there were problems with my transcript from Australia. Filtered through two California schools in one and a half years, credits weren't adding up. The counselor, knowing I was college bound, suggested a string of classes which left, in the whole year, one elective. I decided to take "Creative Writing" in the fall semester. That was Thom's class.
When I met Thom initially I took a dislike to him. During our second class, after he had reviewed and thoroughly corrected our first prose piece (and failed to see any merit in mine, because to paraphrase his words, I was hiding behind language in order to preach a point instead of showing it), I sat, angrily composing a defense of my piece for the appropriate moment. Thom discussed high and low points of the other students' work. I was jarred back to reality by his dismissive comment about the Dickensian qualities of writing he didn't want to see. When I launched into a defense of Dickens ("David Copperfield" got me through a fully booked, 20-hour Air India flight from Bangkok to Athens, with five cigar smokers) he calmly pointed out that I had misheard him, he'd said, "Dick and Jane-sian," to convey the overly simplistic sentence structure of the legendary reading primers.
The whole class had a good laugh. And Thom had my number. He also happened to be a fan of Dickens, but he insisted I read Trollope, and Thackeray (again), and George Eliot, as well as additional Thomas Hardy novels I'd overlooked. Having raced through the Victorians filling in the gaps, Thom modernized my reading list with Edwardians, Virginia Woolf (I ended up doing my senior honors thesis on Woolf because of this exposure), Flannery O'Connor, and living authors like Joyce Carol Oates and John Updike. Finally he introduced me to the crème de la crème, Muriel Spark. While she wasn't a third culture kid like I am, he rightly supposed that her sojourn as a young adult in Africa would create a connection, and her most famous book, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, would help me put my Australian schooling in perspective. Throughout our mentorship and then our adult friendship Thom continued to push my reading list to become more and more contemporary. I may still prefer Dickens, but I can appreciate much of modern fiction thanks to Thom. (He also started my long lived attachment to the New Yorker Magazine. He wanted me to read about current books, movies, and theater.)
Students in Thom's class were required to keep written journals, in spiral bound, lined notebooks. In less than a week I'd abandoned my old hard bound diary into which I crammed everything and started writing like there was no tomorrow. Writing about everything, not just the day's events. Thom taught us the importance of getting a rough draft down and how to go about the business of rewriting. My journal was filled with paragraphs that I fiddled with and sentences that I recast. My written journal is still kept the same way today: a mix of what happened, a mix of what I am thinking, and a mix of drafts.
So what made Thom a great mentor? Well first, in only one teacher/parent meeting he was able to profile my relationship with my parents and help me coexist (I have it on authority from my mother that I was lippy); second, he fed my mind with the food I needed (great literature) and taught me how to take it seriously, as something to be discussed because ideas could make a difference in life. Third, he reinforced by word and action, my belief that the mind was as important as I held it to be. All of that would have made him a good mentor, what made him a great mentor was that he listened. His listening created the impression that I had his undivided attention. And I did. But so did hundreds of other students. That's what made him great at it.
He also didn't give up on people. Assigned to teach basic reading classes Thom encouraged the students who could barely read to bring in anything they wanted to read, any trashy novel, and he helped them with it. He knew their desire to read would push them to mastery. But the real reason this approach worked was because he was not judgmental. Trashy was OK. The students responded to the freedom his honesty provided. They would come up to him in the hallway to discuss the latest horror book while I was talking about those Victorians. This intellectual tolerance has the effect of increasing interest, questioning, and analysis. It is something I still benefit from today, because along with the "great" literature he shared with me he introduced me to Dorothy L. Sayers. Since Dickens was popular literature in his day, why not look at popular literature? Be a part of your culture.
In addition to his teaching duties Thom was the director of the student theater productions. Thom directed the best performance of "The Fantastics" I have ever seen (I'm not old enough to have seen Jerry Orbach on Broadway, but I have seen professional actors perform it). He always got the best out of his performing students. Despite, or perhaps because of my involvement in grade school theatrics, I didn't really understand theater as a creative practice from a directorial point of view until I saw Thom practice it, watched how he rehearsed, observed how he created his vision with the students as players.
The second semester of my senior year I spent a lot of my free time talking over ideas with Thom. When I left for college I started writing him letters (because we moved so often while I was growing up, I've always been an avid letter writer) and he encouraged me to keep copies of my letters (which I did with a typewriter and carbon paper, before I had a p.c.). This habit taught me to compose at the keyboard, a useful skill throughout college, graduate school, and my adult employment. This habit also has created a rich archive of my thoughts on just about everything from dental hygiene to political elections. Something the Dickensian in me values; as he knew it would.
For the first few years of college I would return to Chicago to visit my parents and I would always visit Thom. There wasn't really anything to catch up on because we wrote so often, but my visits, both during his free periods at school or to his home, allowed me to see first hand the impact he had on so many other students, who just kept stopping by. He was always surrounded by engaged students working joyfully on the projects at hand; or past students building lives beyond high school with an energy learned from him.
Later, after my parents moved, Thom visited me in Minneapolis (where I'd come for graduate school). His visits would coincide with the traveling opera or a Guthrie production. We would talk for hours about literature, popular culture, and our plans. While our relationship shifted into adult friendship in some ways Thom was already internalized as part of that audience of one for whom I write. His voice is in my head, not as a harsh internal critic, but as a "gentle reader" who wants to be amused and entertained.
Thom died in 1989 after a short struggle with AIDS. Before the disease killed him it robbed him of his sight. An avid reader it was the only thing I ever heard him complain about.
As we go through life we meet a lot of people. If we are fortunate we misunderstand what they are talking about and get defensive, argue with them and end up having a life-long friendship. If we are really fortunate they happen to be compassionate, insightful, intelligent, and witty people. If we are blessed we meet one person who takes time to listen and encourage us in our passions so that life continues to be full of wonder and most importantly, so that we can recognize other wonderful people who show up willing to be engaged. Thom gave this gift to hundreds and hundreds of students. All at the same time, with no sense of any diminishment of his own time or attention. I'm one of those students. I know mentoring can change someone's life. I know being a mentor, putting aside your own ego, listening, owning your own creative process, these are all gifts that can be passed on to others.