Losing badly in a ping pong game in the school basement, I was suddenly distracted by my best friend, Frank Oberle, clattering down the steel stairs on the far side of the room.
The ping pong ball sailed past my head, and as I turned to curse Frank and blame him for the flub, he held something above his head, grinning widely enough that I could see his chipped tooth.
“Got it,” he shouted.
I had no clue what he meant.
But when he presented a folded portion of that day’s newspaper for me to scrutinize, I slowly but surely understood.
There in the op-ed section, my name appeared beneath a letter to the editor entitled “Meaningful Symbols”: my first publication of any kind.
The letter was my response to another letter writer condemning people for wasting money on Christmas cards, which had me defending cards and other holiday customs as worthwhile traditions.
But what Frank was really excited about was our English teacher Father Blane’s pronouncement weeks earlier that any student who got a persuasive essay published in the paper would earn an A in English for the semester. The bigger thrill for Frank was calling our teacher’s bluff.
On Monday before class, Frank was itching to show Father Blane the goods. But I prevailed upon him to stay put, with persuasion and finally a headlock, since asking my English teacher to put up or shut up was inconceivable. To me, Father Blane was a god.
Back in 1965, when Frank and I were 15, the one adult I considered charismatic, inspirational, omniscient, and out and out cool, was not James Bond or John Wayne or Mickey Mantle. It was the Rev. Blane O’Neill, my high school English teacher at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Westmont.
Teens typically adopt athletes or musicians as role models. But Blane’s passion for literature so masterfully communicated in class every day made me a major fan. No third baseman or vocalist in a rock band could compare to a T.S. Elliot or John Steinbeck or Emily Dickinson, after Blane would quote from memory a passage from their work, and then through discussion and Q and A, would lead us to marvel at their genius and art.
I’ll never forget how he demonstrated the episode in Hemingway’s Old Man in the Sea when Santiago, after the giant marlin he caught was ripped apart by sharks, lifted his boat’s cross-shaped mast onto his shoulder before walking up the hill towards home. Blane was no ham, but he acted it out (in his friar’s robe and sandals) so we would see the religious symbolism with our own eyes.
Decades later, I repeat the pantomime I stole from Father Blane for my college students (in suit and tie).
Syntax and language structure among his specialties, Blane could also have been a wonderful math teacher, the way he conveyed, with chalk and interrogation, the beauty of a perfect sentence. I laughed at the hours my friends spent sorting their Topps baseball cards, when they could have, instead, been diagramming a sentence with an absolute phrase ( like the one that starts this paragraph), a fancy tool Blane taught us for combining sentences.
I was not an avid reader and was not raised on books. So my slow reading rate seemed like a handicap, until Blane awakened me to the pattern of sea imagery in each chapter of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Forty-six years later, I excitedly read a paragraph to my wife in bed, when I happen upon a brilliant metaphor in a story by James Salter or Alice Munro.
I considered other careers while in college. But I had never met a doctor or a lawyer or any other professional who felt the same joy in his work as Blane so obviously did. It’s why I chose teaching, aspiring to do for others, what he did for us. It’s why I can’t think of anyone else more worth of tribute on this May 9, National Teacher’s Day.
I still find myself sweeping into a school room, looking over the assemblage, and then picking out one student whose name I call and whom I try to tempt and titillate with a question, to surprise and provoke the entire group. I continue to teach after 46 years, still striving futilely to reach the height of the bar set by Father Blane.
And I’m just one of the thousands whose lives he changed — likely millions if you calculate the secondary and exponential total he impacted through his students.
After my parents, he was the most important person in my young life. And it’s a safe bet that if you’re reading this, you can probably say the same about a teacher of yours.
Rev. Blane O’Neill, O.F.M. died on March 28. He was 93. David McGrath is Emeritus English professor, College of DuPage, and author of THE TERRITORY. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.