My introduction to junior high was a blend of adventure and terror. I was ten miles away from home in a town I had never so much as ridden though. In home room I learned that my classmates lived in places like Cabot or along KDKA Blvd, all places foreign to me. My elementary school friends were, with few exceptions, dispersed into other sections. The forty-minute bus ride seemed endless. It was a real jolt going from being a giant among the pygmies at Penn School to being the youngest in a school so overcrowded that it would be doubled in size the coming year and still fell crowded. I held on to the faint hope that with so much new there might be some great things as well. I would not be disappointed.
My morning classes seemed interesting enough, ancient history and physical science. I liked those subjects. But as I headed towards fourth period class, I was less than overjoyed. Although I loved my sixth grade English teacher, I was less than excited about diagramming sentences. I entered room 209 and expecting to be placed alphabetically, I grabbed a front row seat, took out my Kurtz Bros. tablet and pencil. I then looked up to see my English teacher, Jesse G. Bowers.
My first reaction was shock. I imagined English teachers to be librarian-like women but here was a man who appeared to be a bit of a bruiser. He had a no-nonsense manner and a very commanding voice. I quickly discovered he also had a warm smile and a ready sense of humor. After a bit of settling in, I felt that things were going to go well.
Over the next few weeks we did diagram some sentences, but they were always interesting sentences Mr. Bowers had designed not the dry ones drawn from the textbooks. And we read, and we read, and we talked about what we read. Then we would write about what we had read. The stories and discussions were always engaging. My tough-as-nails English teacher revealed himself to be a well-read bibliophile. He sometimes provided commentary on contemporary books such as The Confessions of Nat Turner or The Child Buyer which may have been just beyond the level for a junior high student, but tantalizing enough to generate interest in reading such books later on. When it came to the reading list for his students, Mr. Bowers preferred to introduce his own materials to supplement the standard pablum of the school board approved text books. In an era before a wide choice of juvenile fiction was available, he somehow found great material. His choices ran the gamut of safe to somewhat controversial. Jesse Stuart’s, The Thread that Runs So True was a family-oriented set of stories from rural Kentucky. Later we read an inspirational tale about a man fighting for his life who declared boldly (I can still hear Jesse cry it out loud.) “Nobody’s better off dead!” We read and discussed gritty adventures like The Most Dangerous Game or Leniningen Versus the Ants. We read stories of careless teenage drivers and discussed the ramifications of making good choices when in the not-to-distant future we too would be drivers.
We typically read stories that would appeal to young men, but the girls never seemed to object as they too were fascinated by the great dramatic performances, the eye rolling jokes, the everybody-in discussions. I think the magic in that classroom came from a close-to-fearlesss classroom experience so different from anything we had every had known. We were treated as adolescents who could and should gather experiences from reading and allow these vicarious journeys to cause us to consider, discuss and then write, and write, and write.
Forty years later, I was watching the powerful movie Dead Poet’s Society with my son Chris who asked me, “Wouldn’t it be great to have such a bold teacher like that?” My reply was, “Yes, it was. Yes, most certainly, it was.”