I was a senior in high school. It was a good place to be in life. Lots of things were on my mind, but whether I was going to make it through senior English wasn't one of them. I hadn't had too many problems academically in the prior eleven years and I didn't expect this year to be any different, but here I was, sitting, waiting to get my first writing assignment of the year back from a teacher I didn't know very well. I thought I could write fairly well and this guy, Mr. Perrault, seemed pretty decent, so I'd just get this paper back and get on with enjoying senior year.
Then the assignment came back. Scrawled across the top was a grade and three words, "D - This is CRAP!". So went my introduction to John Perrault. He had my attention. Many of us in that class did poorly on that first assignment. It might have seemed excessive, even an indictment of all those English classes that came before, if Perrault hadn't proceeded then to teach us to write, and could that guy ever teach.
I remember him as being a real "guy" who had a tough aspect, but could speak quite emotionally, particularly about literature. He didn't pull any punches and you always knew where you stood with him. I grew to respect that. He loved to force us to think, and grinned as if lost in a private joke whenever we'd make some new discovery that he'd all but laid in front of us. It definitely didn't turn out to be an easy class.
We were supposed to learn about American literature, and he was a great guide. He helped us wade through Melville and put ourselves in Ahab's shoes. He made me see so much value in Thoreau's Walden that I later read it again, and then again, and occasionally I still pick up that book to this day. In the process of our tour of American authors he managed to teach us a little about life as well.
I still remember him confiding to us what he thought might be his favorite line in literature. It was the last line of Hemmingway's The Sun Also Rises, spoken between the lovers that can never be, as she tells him how nice it could have been. He simply replies "Isn't it pretty to think so." Perrault thought so much of life was expressed in that line. I think I needed to be older to appreciate that quote the way he did.
He also taught us to write. I waived out of a semester of freshman college English because of him, and I never had trouble with any writing assignment during those years. Later when I became a software engineer, I found that many people couldn't write a coherent technical specification. I could. I credit Perrault. Today, I write AppleBits, and a few thousand people find it interesting enough to read it every day. If not for John Perrault, I'm quite certain that AppleBits would not exist.
Over the years, many times I've thought about going back and saying "Thank you." The first time was probably when I came back from college, then when my career started working out, then probably once every few years to this day. A few weeks ago, it occurred to me that I might be able to get in touch with John Perrault via the web. I found that my high school now had a web site, and it was being run by the gentleman who used to be principal at my Junior High, Richard Griffin.
I sent Mr. Griffin email explaining how much I had appreciated Mr. Perrault and asking if he could put me in touch with him so that I could say thanks. A few hours later, he sent me a reply. He explained as kindly as possible that John Perrault had passed away from cancer about five years ago.
So this story has a couple of embedded lessons, a little gift from Mr. Perrault to me through two decades of time. The first is about the importance of teachers. They're undervalued, underpaid, and taken for granted. The best of them affect their students lives forever. Every student should have one John Perrault in their lives; that teacher who challenges you, guides you and leaves you better prepared for life than when you met.
The second lesson is, of course, about saying thanks. There are probably people in your life who've exerted a particularly positive influence on you. Maybe it's a parent, a friend, a spouse, or maybe even a teacher. Don't wait too long to say thanks. I'd like to think that John Perrault knew the profound effect he had on his students' lives. I hope his family knows that there are probably hundreds of former students just like me whose lives are better for having ended up in his classroom. Isn't it pretty to think so?