Thousands of public school teachers won’t be returning to the classroom this fall, thanks to budget cuts nationwide. And that means more than a few Jay Criche’s won’t get the chance to tap the hidden talents of young students. Jay Criche, in case you’re wondering, taught English at Lake Forest High School and counted Dave Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and What Is the What) as one of his students. Criche passed away recently, and, writing in Salon, Eggers remembers his teacher’s deep influence:
He was kind to me, but I had no sense that he took particular notice of me. There were other, smarter kids in the class, and soon I fell back into my usual position — of thinking I was just a little over average in most things. But near the end of the semester, we read “Macbeth.” Believe me, this is not an easy play to connect to the lives of suburban high schoolers, but somehow he made the play seem electric, dangerous, relevant. After procrastinating till the night before it was due, I wrote a paper about the play — the first paper I typed on a typewriter — and turned it in the next day.
I got a good grade on it, and below the grade Mr. Criche wrote, “Sure hope you become a writer.” That was it. Just those six words, written in his signature handwriting — a bit shaky, but with a very steady baseline. It was the first time he or anyone had indicated in any way that writing was a career option for me. We’d never had any writers in our family line, and we didn’t know any writers personally, even distantly, so writing for a living didn’t seem something available to me. But then, just like that, it was as if he’d ripped off the ceiling and shown me the sky.
Over the next 10 years, I thought often about Mr. Criche’s six words. Whenever I felt discouraged, and this was often, it was those six words that came back to me and gave me strength. When a few instructors in college gently and not-so-gently tried to tell me I had no talent, I held Mr. Criche’s words before me like a shield. I didn’t care what anyone else thought. Mr. Criche, head of the whole damned English department at Lake Forest High, said I could be a writer. So I put my head down and trudged forward.
You can read Egger’s remembrance in full here.