I learned today that one of my high school teachers, Otis Benson Davis, died earlier this week. O.B., as we all called him (only behind his back--to his face he was, of course, Mr. Davis), graduated from Kent School in 1942 and returned to teach there full time in 1949. He retired from active teaching only a few years ago, in 2006.
I graduated from Kent 36 years after O.B. did. He was my AP English teacher, my senior year; he was also the English department chair, and his influence was pervasive in the department. He was the co-author of the textbook we used for AP English, The Idea of Man (now out of print), and he was the teacher who introduced me to Hamlet, King Lear, and Oedipus as well as Out of the Silent Planet and Point of No Return. O.B. didn't think that, as 17 and 18-year-olds, we were too young to "get" dramas of middle and old age such as Point of No Return and King Lear; he didn't think we needed to be pandered to or coddled. I might choose different books than he did to teach seniors in high school--I imagine he chose different books, too, over the years--but I still remember what we read and, especially, his presence in the classroom, pushing, probing, questioning so that we read better, read deeper.
Part of AP English then--and, I imagine, now--involved drafting the college essay. My first draft, as I recall it, was unimpressive. O.B. wrote in the margin that it was a "cursory adumbration" of a much better essay. I had to look up "adumbration." I didn't ask him to define it; I knew it was my job to figure out what he meant and then to act on it. We sat around a seminar table in his class and discussed our essays, and the books we were reading, and started to feel like scholars.
We weren't, of course, but his confidence in us was, at least for me, infectious. When I started teaching I thought of O.B. all the time. I couldn't emulate him as a teacher--I didn't have his gravitas, his beard, his pipe. But I could and did remember the care he took with my essays, the love he had for literature. His was the approval I sought, the criticism I learned from, the example that inspired me. I can't say for sure that I'm an English professor because O.B. was my teacher, but I know he was a part of what made me choose the path I did. I did have the chance to say "thank you," years later, and I'm glad I did, but I'll say it again.
Thank you, O.B. Rest in peace.