By KAREN CIMMS
I had the opportunity last weekend to visit my hometown. The anticipation of returning to where I grew up and went to school, and the chance to catch up with a few dear old friends, got me thinking about my high school days and in particular, about one of my favorite teachers.
Michael Shall was an odd little man. He was 21 years old when he began teaching at Franklin High School in Somerset, N.J. On his first day, he arrived with a wild mop of curly hair, eyes that sparkled devilishly when he smiled, a singed goatee and both hands bandaged up to his wrists. He explained to us, nervously, that he had moved into his first apartment a day earlier, and while trying to light the gas stove, caused a minor explosion.
My first impression: I thought he was kind of an idiot.
While that impression was lasting, he was definitely not an idiot.
He was different, that's for sure. On hot days, he pulled his hair into a ponytail on top of his head, and stuck a pencil in it. As he taught his English classes, he would often perch in unusual places around the room, including the windowsill of our second-floor classroom. We never took our eyes off him, waiting for him to plummet to his death; but, we heard every single word he said.
On one side of his room, he kept an enormous poster of Barbra Streisand, who we were to refer to as "The General." It took me years to figure that one out.
The more I studied under Mr. Shall, the more fascinating he became. He challenged and pushed us to levels beyond what we believed we were capable. He would tolerate nothing but the best and absolutely nothing mundane or pedestrian was allowed.
In my last two years of high school, English classes were divided into specialties. I had Mr. Shall for creative writing and Shakespearean studies.
One night he took our class to see "Macbeth," and afterward treated us all at a Baskin Robbins ice cream parlor. One rule: we could not order vanilla or chocolate ice cream. We had to mix it up, be creative, step out of our comfort zone!
I had vanilla fudge. He was frustrated that I found a way around his edict, but impressed with my spunk.
In class, he pushed me harder and harder, until I began to push myself. I can't recall what the specific assignment was for our Shakespearean studies class, but I will never forget my project. After weeks of research and hours of study at the Rutgers University Library, in my paper, I all but proved that Shakespeare did not write "The Taming of the Shrew."
I cannot recall any other paper I wrote in high school, but I will never forget that one the excitement of discovery following each lead; the thrill of learning while conducting research; the joy of putting my thoughts together into a conclusive argument to support my work. I got an A- on that paper. I still have it to this day.
That is when my love of writing and research began to soar, and when I took the first steps toward a career that would finally find me years later. I saw Mr. Shall a few times after I graduated. It was always a treat and he was as effervescent and over-the-top as always.
Years later, after I finally started my professional writing career, we got an Internet connection at home. As soon as I logged on, I did an online search for Michael Shall.
The first thing that popped up was a New York Times obituary: "Michael Shall, 45, American Expert on Origami."
I checked the other items that came up, and I was disappointed all I could find was information on this origami expert. I finally read the obit, and the first few paragraphs had me convinced it wasn't him. Then I saw it: "taught English in New Jersey high schools for four years before moving to Manhattan in 1974 to try to become the art's first full-time professional."
It was Mr. Shall. He had followed his bliss, and in his abbreviated life, challenged himself to be the best, until AIDS extinguished that brilliant light.
Although his teaching stint barely got a mention in his obituary, for me, it was his greatest contribution, and I have to be grateful for those few years, because he challenged me to find my bliss.