I can’t remember the first time I met Mr. Watkins.
I know I was in 8th grade, and I know I was auditioning for a play. HIS play — that is, a play that he wrote. “The History of the World Parts I and II.” It wasn’t an adaptation of the Mel Brooks comedy, as my Comedy Central-addled brain thought it would be before I tried out, but rather, a musical farce of various points throughout history.
I was cast as Cleopatra and a character called Rene DeFarge (I think), who would pop up in the French Revolution scene. As the Queen of “Denial,” I took part in a “The $100,000 Pyramid” spoof scene, where another female character and I tried to convince our friend James Cave (I have no idea who his character was) to love us. We sang Melissa Etheridge’s “I’m the Only One” back and forth at him while pulling him across the stage. Did it come out of a dream? I don’t know. It was a weird, awesome show.
But I don’t remember what our first interaction was. I can’t call the moment up in my mind. What I do remember, though, is that our first meeting spawned a relationship that I’ll never forget and that helped me become the person I am today.
Gary Watkins — Mr. Watkins — died this morning from cancer. He was a 9th grade honors English teacher at Seneca Valley Intermediate High School, and when I walked into his classroom on the first day of school in 2002, I felt really special. Not only because this was honors English in high school, not only because I knew him from being in his play the year before, but because having Mr. Watkins’ class show up on your schedule was like getting an owl from Hogwarts. It was surrounded with myth and lore and the kind of magic that exists only in the conversations where people describe what the world is supposed to be like.
To say his class was like a scene from “The Dead Poets Society” would be to cheapen it by likening it to something so flat as a film, but if you want a point of reference, it’s a pretty good place to start.
In a year, we covered eons of literature, poetry, philosophy, history and grammar. We read Chaucer, Shakespeare, Yeats, Keats, Tennyson, Eliot — the list is endless. He threw foam swords at us and forced shy students to act out fight scenes from Romeo and Juliet. He had us dress up in togas and act like philosophers. He drilled facts into our head that he promised us we’d never forget — and we didn’t. (When was the Battle of Hastings? 1066, duh.) He quizzed us on grammar every week, and taught us that if you’re going to use a modifier, you put it right before the word you’re modifying. It’s only logical, after all.
There are a million more memories and facts from Watkins’ class that I would probably get wrong if I tried to recant them to you now. They swim in my brain in a warm, yellow, old book-hued haze that makes me happy and occasionally provides me with Jeopardy answers or annoying ways to correct people.
I can’t remember how I met Mr. Watkins, but what I do know is the impression he left on my life.
Walking in to Watkins’ class was nothing short of embracing the physical manifestation of all that could be. If people call him the best teacher they’ve ever had, it was because he had optimized his nine months with us to run like a well-oiled machine. He knew how to crack open the brain of sheltered, suburban baby and make him think about the world in a different way.
For a formerly shy, fat, nerdy girl who wanted nothing more than to escape the monotony of planned neighborhoods and soccer practices, watching Watkins wring every drop out of life was inspiring and eye-opening. Yes, there were people in the world who wanted to think — who wanted YOU to think — about beauty and love and passion. He let me believe that there is a value in the world in writing something good.
And more than that, he made me feel like I had something special in me.
One of Watkins’ famous tricks was remembering where every student he ever had sat in his class. And he didn’t organize us alphabetically. Like a real life sorting hat, he had some strange method for placing each of us that made me feel like he must have been able to see us at a protozoic level, even before we walked in the door.
And with that, he made us all a part of his perfect mess. He let us you know that WE could be philosophers or poets or novelists, and that we could do it with every ounce of burning blood in our bodies.
I walked out of his class always wanting to go back — and I did. I would sneak up to his door and lean myself against the frame and just listen to his lectures until he saw me standing there, winked at me and kept going.
I went through the rest of my education looking for something to make me feel the way that Watkins did — like I had something to prove and there was room in the world for it. I wanted to live my life that way, always fighting for the right thing, fighting to know as much as I could and to do whatever I did the best that I could. To take my part of his well-oiled machine and put it out into the world.
I never found another teacher that could live up to who Watkins was to me, and I don’t know if I’m living up to the idea that I thought he wanted us to be. But as I think about him today, I can only promise that I’ll keep trying.
I didn’t go to a charter school or a magnet school or a private school or a place that you’d find on a list of the best schools in the country that attracts teachers like Mr. Watkins. I went to a public school on a back country road in rural, small town western Pennsylvania. But inside that school there was a castle, and inside that castle was a jolly, fat-bellied king, with a brown-grey beard and a twinkle in his eye. He was kind and funny, unless you interrupted a really good story he was telling, then he would probably throw your pizza against the chalkboard. But he always came back to teach, to guide, to believe and to inspire.
For all the fire, love and passion he gave us, at least we know he went out with a bang, not a whimper.
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.