THE DEATH OF comedian-actor Robin Williams last month started me thinking about the English teacher he portrayed in Dead Poets Society (1989). Lots of people adored Williams’ John Keating, who urged his prep-school students to embrace literature and seize the day, and some agreed with the late film critic Roger Ebert, who saw the character as “more of a plot device than a human being.”
Said Ebert: “When his students stood on their desks to protest his dismissal, I was so moved, I wanted to throw up.”
This love-’em-or-hate-’em divide occurs a lot with high school English teachers, and I suspect it might apply to real-life, too-cool-to-keep-teaching-school types. While Robin Williams never actually taught high school English, the following did, which begs the question: Would you really want to learn about adjectives, adverbs and duple meter from Andy Griffith, Donna Fargo, or the silent half of Penn and Teller?
While we have no idea what they were really like as teachers, here are my guesses as to which these one-time English instructors I wish I’d had in high school:
1. ANDY GRIFFITH
Comedian, actor (“The Andy Griffith Show,”“Matlock”), musician. Taught music and English at Goldsboro High in North Carolina, 1949-53.
WHILE I’M CYNICAL enough to believe that lots of entertainers are as charming as fire ants in real life, I refuse to believe anything bad about the man who played Sheriff Andy Taylor on “The Andy Griffith Show” from 1960-68. Griffith was funny — he first made his mark at a comedian — and smart and played a mean guitar. Frances Bavier (Aunt Bee) couldn’t stand him, but Don Knotts (Barney Fife) and Ron Howard (Opie Taylor) thought the world of the late (1926-2012) Mr. Griffith. I see him as the unpretentious, keep-it-fun type of English teacher I always wanted. Verdict: Sign me up!
Musician, actor, humanitarian. Taught English, music and soccer at St. Paul’s First School, a secondary school for girls in England, for two years in the early 1970s.
I LIKE A LOT OF THE FORMER Gordon Sumner’s music, but I would rather floss with barbed wire than step foot in his classroom. First of all, people who go by one name — Sting, Madonna, Elmo— tend to be full of themselves. Second, Sting released a 1993 album titled Ten Summoner’s Tales that was described by one critic as “Chaucer-obsessed smugness.” Third, he once rhymed “Nabakov” (author of Lolita) with “shake and cough.” Verdict: Count me out!
3. DONNA FARGO
Country music singer. Taught English at Northview High in Covina, California, in the mid-1960s.
FARGO EMERGED from Andy Griffith’s hometown, Mount Airy, North Carolina, and changed her name from Yvonne Vaughn before launching her singing career. I’m impressed that Fargo, like Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton, wrote most of her own songs. My concern is that her biggest hit was “The Happiest Girl in the Whole U.S.A.,” which includes the lines “skippidy doo da day” and “Skippidy doo da, thank you, Lord.” I like cheerful teachers as much as anyone, but I don’t need no skippidy doo da Shakespeare lessons. Verdict: Count me out!
Magician (he’s the silent half of the Penn and Teller duo).Taught English and Latin at Lawrence High School in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, in the early 1970s, quitting to pursue a magic career in 1975.
BORN RAYMOND JOSEPH TELLER, this magic man used his voice as a teacher but found that as a performer, people paid more attention when he kept quiet. Given a choice, I’d rather have Teller teach about The Iliad and The Odyssey than Penn Jillette, his large, loud magic partner. I’m thinking Teller’s tricks could create the illusion that we were learning something, and maybe his sleight of hand could make those long class hours disappear. Verdict: Sign me up!
5. ROBERTA FLACK
Four-time Grammy Award-winning vocalist most noted for “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” (1972) and “Killing Me Softly” (1973). Taught English and music at Washington, D.C., public schools from 1960-67.
THE FIRST TIME EVER I HEARD “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” was while watching Play Misty For Me, a 1971 film about a deejay dealing with a murderous stalker. It’s not Flack’s fault that the top-selling song of 1972 is associated with a knife-wielding psychopath, but it doesn’t help. Also, why does she say, “Ever I saw?” Why not, “I ever saw?” Because it sounds more flowery the first way? I know she didn’t write the song, but I expect better from an ex-English teacher. Verdict: Count me out!
6. BILL O’REILLY
Political commentator on FoxNews, author. Taught English and history at Monsignor Pace High School (Miami Gardens, Florida) for two years from 1971 to 1973.
I’M GUESSING that those who agree with O’Reilly’s conservative politics would want to take his classes, and those who consider him a raving fascist would rather swim through a sewer than listen to his lessons. That, I think, is wrong-headed. When I went to college, half the history teachers preached the virtues of Marxism like their skin was on fire, which made their classes livelier. O’Reilly might burn all copies of Catcher in the Rye and make the class read Ayn Rand, but he wouldn’t be boring. Verdict: Sign me up!
7. STEVEN SEAGAL
Martial artist, actor. Taught English in Japan in late-1960s, early 1970s.
DOES TEACHING conversational English to non-English speakers make Seagal a he-man version of My Fair Lady’s Henry Higgins? No, but play along here. Before becoming an action star, our hero studied Zen in Japan and earned back belts in Aikido, karate, judo, and kendo. He become a star with 1988’s Above the Law, a film that lacked “originality, intelligibility and anything resembling taste,” according to the Washington Post. As action stars go, Seagal is more articulate than Schwarzenegger or Stallone, but I can’t picture him reciting Keats or Shelley to a class full of young scholars. Verdict: Count me out!
8. DAN BLOCKER
Actor (“Bonanza”). Taught English and drama (and possibly history) at Sonora (Texas) High School, 1953-58
THE BIG MAN who played Hoss Cartwright on “Bonanza” from 1959 to 1972 looked more like a football coach — or a football field — than an English teacher. The 6-foot-3, 300-pound-plus Blocker was actually a pretty smart dude who moved from Texas to Los Angeles (with some years in New Mexico) with the notion of getting his Ph.D at UCLA. Blocker, age 43, died of complications after a gall bladder operation in 1972, two years before his “Bonanza” brother, Michael Landon, started his 10-year run as Charles Ingalls on “Little House on the Prairie.” As a teacher, I’d take the self-effacing Hoss over the self-righteous Pa Ingalls any day. Verdict: Sign me up!