Note from Jan: Robert O’Donnell taught high school English in Arlington, VA until June 2012. He died yesterday after an illness that weakened his body but not his spirit. SBC is a writer, editor, scholar, and my Second Born Child.
Did you know that “tortilla” and “torture” have the same etymology (“tort” meaning “twist”)? I didn’t, until I took Mr. O’Donnell’s class.
I feel sort of bad saying he was my favorite teacher in the history of teachers, in part because I had many terrific teachers, and in part because he would have none of it. He is whatever the opposite of a sociopath is. Or rather, as of recently, he was.
O’Donnell was wise. O’Donnell was hilarious. O’Donnell loved stories and words and trivia and jokes and baseball and his wife and history and pancakes and us. He was literally, but never figuratively, a sick man. By the time I met him he was in his early fifties, but resembled a particularly spry grandfather. His heart, feeling the need to define irony, never worked very well.
It might not be entirely kosher to talk about this, because folks tend not to like thinking about times of sickness. But for me, O’Donnell was always various degrees of sick. And while this in and of itself did nothing to define him, I think his reaction to it certainly did. He never moped or showed anger, at least not to us: rather, in a fit of himselfness, he allowed himself to be dubbed “Mr. OldDonnell” and made it a point of wry pride.
He never treated us like kids, which is the hackneyed standard of a good teacher. But he didn’t treat us like adults either, which is what made him a great one. He treated us like teenagers, who still didn’t know much of anything but hated to be reminded of it. He granted us the perfect balance of guidance and independence in his class; and, because it was the last advanced English course before APs had us training for one big test, said class essentially consisted of him doing whatever the hell he wanted. We covered Williams both Golding and Shakespeare, discussing how Lord of the Flies might have been had girls been allowed on the trip, and whether or not the Bard hated Jews; he taught us literary terms using examples in anecdotes rather than pure definitions (the tale used to explain “understatement”, for instance, was one of his uncle’s war stories, and in telling it O’Donnell accidentally taught us “harrowing” as well); he somehow, somehow made grade-level sentence treeing interesting, through puns and mnemonics and doodles; and, in all scenarios, he always held a soft spot for a good word.
On a personal level, as I hinted at in the beginning, Mr. O’Donnell shaped my love of etymology. One of his many projects involved researching various word roots and seeing how many modern words we could find from them, deducting points for false leads (in the example given, the unrelated “tortoise” almost did me in) He taught me what the Oxford English Dictionary was. He taught me how to research. And for a second there, thanks to him, I wanted to be a teacher.
Fortunately for America’s youth this sentiment passed, but not before I started checking out which colleges had good teaching programs. One that stuck out was William and Mary, initially mentioned for its five year undergrad/masters program, and even when my desire to teach faded, the school itself had a stubborn grip. In that way, Mr. O’Donnell is very much the reason I went to the school I did, and had four wonderful years of education in linguistics (which, you recall, he also inspired), and made some of my best friends, and heard about the Denver Publishing Institute, and ended up in New York working at an amazing bookstore with an honest-to-god goal in life. If you met me after tenth grade, and like anything about me, chances are you should be thanking Bob O’Donnell.
But the true testament to OD’s greatness is that my story is one of hundreds, of many before me and too few after me. And all of us were crafted by a different aspect of the man; he could talk about anything, and make you feel like you knew more than you did through osmosis, and give you confidence and set you on your way like you were the only student that mattered. One day in my eleventh grade English class, the magnificent Linda Meer mentioned the term “renaissance man” in passing. By the time she was finished defining it for us, we all had the same thought. Oh. Like Mr. O’Donnell.
I love you. I miss you. And I still want to be you when I grow up.