It was September of 1983 and for the 11th time in my life, school was starting again.
Most of my classes were the typical ones. There was trigonometry, U.S. History, physics among them and then there was English Literature. We sat at our desks and in came Mr. John Harkins with what I soon learned was his standard "Toot-toot" or "Whoop-yay." Shortly, we had these thick English Literature books in our hands and we were about to begin learning the history of the literature of the land from which America was sired.
I can still poignantly recall that guttural "G-r-r-r-rendel" emanating from deep inside Mr. Harkins as he began to teach us about the centuries old epic of "Beowulf" written so many centuries ago.
One would think that to a classroom of teenagers, the story would be dated, difficult and boring, but Mr. Harkins had a way of breathing life into these chestnuts of history. Soon he swept us down the trail to Scandinavia to fight the monster Grendel once more in the words of the ancient Old English epic and my education about English literature began.
If one were to read the "Canterbury Tales" as written, while interesting I'm not sure how engaging they would be, but in Mr. Harkins' hands they came to life. We actually acted out the tales of Geoffrey Chaucer's epic work including "The Miller's Tale", "The Wife's Tale", "The Pardoner's Tale" and all the rest.
It's almost 30 years since Mr. Harkins taught those stories to us but I can still recall so much because he impressed them upon us with his amusing, dramatic and very clever manner of teaching. Of all my teachers only a handful had a style that was not a cookie-cutter approach and Mr. Harkins is one of the few at the top of that short list.
You could not help but love him as a teacher and a mentor. He was so approachable and if you were willing to learn, he was willing to teach you.
Soon we moved into the essays of Daniel Defoe, Samuel Johnson, sonnets and odes and poetry. I remember reading William Wordsworth and John Donne and so many of the great English authors. We read about Johnson's dictionary, Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Kubla Khan" and "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" and John Milton's "Paradise Lost."
Of course the star of the course was William Shakespeare. We studied his life and achievements as well as his writings. We read many of his sonnets and poetry, but the star of the year was the play which should not be named, "Macbeth." From the opening scene with cackling witches brought to life by us through Mr. Harkins guidance to the death of the Scottish king, we studied Macbeth in great detail and depth.
That epic test that concluded the unit was one of the most thorough and difficult I had ever taken up to that point. I can still hear him reciting Shakespeare or urging us on to add life to those words.
When the year ended, it was a let-down for me. I received a deep appreciation of the beauty and majesty of literature, the genius of the authors who wrote those stories and how they reflected life and its lessons to students in a classroom hundreds of years later.
Literature is full of great stories, but it is how those lessons apply to life and our approach to the challenges that confront each one of us that give us character and hopefully wisdom. There is where Mr. Harkins' success in each one of us lies. We all learned something about life.
He taught us the courage of Beowulf in the face of great adversity, in Macbeth about the folly of pride and the beauty of inspiration in the poetry of William Wordsworth. I can still see and hear him reciting "My heart leaps up when I behold a rainbow in the sky …"
And now, my friend and my teacher, my heart is heavy to know that you are no longer with us, but I know your heart and spirit have leaped up to join that rainbow in the sky and your fight is done. I know you fought your illness with the same vigor with which you coached your teams, and I'm sure your parting was involuntary.
My grandmother always told me when a good person is buried heaven cries and it will rain. If the rain on Tuesday is any indication, you were welcomed warmly into Heaven, but you are missed here by all of us, your family and your extended family, us students.
I know I have said thank you before, but one last time Mr. Harkins, on behalf of your students, I want to say thank you. Your legacy lives on in our hearts, our character and our spirit, and in closing I want you to know in John Donne's words, "No man is an island … any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee."
Rest in peace, my friend and my deepest condolences to your family, but may they rest well knowing that you are probably dining with Shakespeare and discussing satire with DeFoe.
Til next time …