As a senior high school student, I had an English teacher who was--shall I say--less than ideal. For whatever reason(s), she seemingly made it her mission in life to discourage me in my writing abilities. My essays and literature reviews were regularly given less-than-stellar marks, and her condescending, self-righteous attitude was one that made an insecure, budding college student more than a little apprehensive about his journey into higher education. However, I counseled these fears by reminding myself that I was a "science and math guy" and that I would be majoring in physics at the university, so it didn't matter that I was a poor writer. I didn't need writing ability to solve differential equations or to wrestle with the conundrums of Newtonian physics and quantum mechanics. Thus, I left high school with a placated conscience, albeit harboring a rather low opinion of my skill at putting word to page.
All the same, I loved poetry. By the time I began my freshman year in college, I had written countless poems, many of which I had given to past girlfriends or secretly read to myself in anticipation of wooing some young lady in the future. Now, these early poems were admittedly dreadful. Although they were a little better than the roses-are-red sort, they would have nevertheless made the William Carlos Williamses and Seamus Heaneys of the world shutter in horror were they ever read aloud or even placed face down on the table in their presence. They were poetry in name only. As far as craft goes, they were nothing short of incomprehensible gibberish--the products of unfettered amateurishness. Even so, my lack of skill and training never stopped me from writing and enjoying the creative process.
During my sophomore year in college, I scratched an ever-growing poetic itch (as it were) by taking an introductory poetry course to fulfill elective credit in my science-degree program. I was immediately impressed with the professor, an aging man of about 6'2" who had been a R.A.F. fighter pilot in North Africa and England during World War II. He had been shot down once by Rommel's forces and told the most fascinating stories about dogfighting with Messerschmidtts in the Battle of Britain. Plus, he had the most quintessential, mesmerizing British accent, laced with Pommy humor and candor, that kept all of his students on the edges of their cheap-university-multi-colored-plastic seats. We reveled in Dr. Geoffrey Morley-Mower because he was funny, elegant, worldly wise, and, most importantly, brilliant. He brought poetry alive through pedagogical techniques such as personal commentary, in-class reading, and line-by-line exegesis. When we completed "The Nun's Priest's Tale" by Chaucer, I definitively knew what "A povre wydwe, somdeel stape in age" was and how her 14th-century life applied to mine. Dr. Morley-Mower was an educator for the ages, a man of letters who brought his students along on the literary journey of their lives. I loved him, as did the entire class and generations of previous students, as I later learned during a eulogistic tribute to his life.
But when he invited me to his office one day to discuss a recent essay I had written, I cringed. I anticipated yet another high-school-like tongue-lashing about my inabilities with the written word, my lack of critical-literary analysis, or my failed attempt at the five-paragraph essay format. When I walked in to his quaint, book-adorned office and he invited me to sit down, I braced for the worst. He opened with, "What is your major?" to which I responded, "Science, sir." Yet, what he said next was quite frankly one of the most shockingly profound things anyone has ever said to me. He said, "Well, you need to be an English major." I asked him to repeat what he had just said, which he did. After a few seconds of disbelieving silence, I replied, "Thank you, but my senior English teacher in high school said I was a horrible writer." Not missing a beat, Dr. Mower raised his refined brow and quipped with a James-Bond-like cynicism, "Well, she's an idiot." We both laughed, and he proceeded to outline my positive writing qualities, the potential he saw in my critical-scholarly abilities, and his desire for me to become a writer. I left his office both stunned and confident--not fully understanding what had just happened but innately realizing that my life had changed forever and a new door of possibility had been opened for me.
In the intervening years between then and now, I have made writing a significant pursuit in my life. Although I continued to major in science at the university and even went on to earn a master's degree in geoscience, Dr. Morley-Mower's simple, one-time recognition of my abilities and his genuine belief in me as a scholar has motivated me these many years to seek opportunities to write and to hone my skill in the art of word-craft. He was my inspiration for pursuing a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing, for becoming a blogger, for having the confidence to confront doctoral work, for attending a writing-intensive law-school program, and for confidently stepping forward to bear the burden of a strategic-writing assignment in the Army. One teacher at an isolated moment in history encouraged one student to be all he could be--to reach for his highest potential. And in so doing, this teacher administered to the world what I now call the "The Mower Factor"--a largely indescribable, non-mathematical factor that takes what appears to be the most innocuous of encouragements and turns it into a powerful stimulus for change. The Mower Factor is a complex amalgamation of the power of positive thinking (thank you, Norman Vincent Peale), personal encouragement, genuine assessment, grace, and license for creative failure. It is seeing the light in someone amidst their darkness and realizing that one's future is more important than one's past or present. It is seeking passion rather than proficiency and knowing that the greatest energy in the human experience is not kinetic but rather potential. It is searching for the best in others rather than settling for their worst. And for me, application of the Mower Factor in the fall of 1994 altered the course of my life forever and transformed the defeatisms of one educator into the inspirational springboard of another.
Educators, please remember the vastly important role you play in the lives of your students . . . for good or for evil. Those in your tutelage look to you for expertise, academic refinement, and critical assessment, but they also lean on you for encouragement. They want you to inspire their best work, to believe in them, and to come alongside them as a fellow journeyman in their pursuits of purpose and excellence. Am I suggesting that we lie to students, offering praise where it is undeserved or tickling the fancies of those who may truly need a "kick in the pants"? Obviously, no. But I am suggesting that we look below the surface of student performance and past our personal prejudices in order to see what isn't there yet--what still needs a bit of refinement. I am suggesting that we believe in the power of human potential to rise above expectation and to conquer even the most insurmountable of obstacles. And I am suggesting that what we say reverberates, turns, twists, and corrodes or heals...all in one breath.