Yesterday, my favorite teacher from high school, Thomas Gerencher, died of a heartattack while walking around the school track. Gerencher had been a fixture at St. Joseph for generations. His first class was my classmate Nick’s parents. He was a man of character and discipline, who loved all his students dearly and for that reason never gave us a break. He was warm and sarcastic, funny and serious, put you on the spot but gave you all the support in the world. I visited him whenever I found myself back in my home town. I will miss him very much.
The sad occasion has brought the St. Joe community together in a way I can feel from 3,000 miles away. I received a bunch of emails yesterday from friends lamenting the loss, reminiscing, and planning memorials. My friend Jimmy came up with the idea to get a newspaper story published and a collection of memoires written by his students. So, the following will be my entry.
Everyone had a special relationship with Thomas Gerencher. That was his way of treating all his students equally. My special relationship with him developed out of a unique circumstance. I wasn’t a particularly good student for him, pretty average, probably. I got straight B’s, I think. I sat in the back and didn’t speak much. My quiz scores were poor because I hardly ever finished the reading on time. I still remember the support techniques, though; he always said those would impress our college composition teachers. Even so, Gerencher went out of his way to let me take a study hall with him even though he did not have a free period.
Bored and suffering from some senioritis, I wanted out of my Spanish Honors class so I approached Gerencher to talk about arranging a study hall. Gerencher, however, was teaching American Literature Honors, the class I had with him the previous year, during the time slot. He agreed to let me sit in the class as long as I kept quiet and actually did something. So, for the final semester of my senior year, I sat in the corner and just watched him teach. Oh, I had some work to do, senior year is not ALL fun and games; but, with a developing interest in teaching, I found it way more interesting to watch Gerencher work. As any teacher will tell you, watching someone teach when you are not responsible for the content you are much more aware of style, and Gerencher was a masterpiece. His delivery had been perfected over years of delivering the same classes from the same notes to class after class of the same kind of students. As a student, Gerencher was intimidating, he was direct and expected you to be precise and confident, which is frightening for a 16-year-old. As an outsider, I could see the care that went into these mini confrontations. I had a priviledged position to watch the build up, the direction. Most exciting, I could see behind his rough and tough style, the little smile that was always just underneath the surface, like this was all a game, a performance, designed and perfected to get the most from his students.
I graduated from St. Joe that Spring and attended Notre Dame in the Fall. Over my four years at Our Lady’s university, I came back to visit occasionally. I graduated from Notre Dame in 2002 and entered the Alliance for Catholic Education, an organization founded at Notre Dame dedicated to put motivated graduates in teaching positions at underpriviledge Catholic schools across the South. Before I began the program, I went to visit Gerencher. As a side note, visiting Gerencher was always a little thrill. He treated you like a minor celebrity, stopping his class to catch up. And his students were always happy to see you too, because you bought them another five minutes to study for the pop quiz. When I told him I was moving to Lake Charles, LA to be a high school teacher, Gerencher, still up to his hold tricks, immediately put me up in front of his class and left the room. We had a chance to talk a little more when his class ended, so I asked him why he wanted to teach American literature. His response surprised me. The teacher who had done the most to instill in me an appreciation for the English language replied, “I wanted to be a football coach at St. Joe. I didn’t give a damn about ‘American Literature’”. He explained that his goal in life was to be a football coach at his alma mater. At Kansas State, he was on track to be a history teacher when his advisor told him he would have a better chance of getting a job doing English. I think he could read the confusion on my face when he said “You know, I have never taught English; I teach students,” and gave me one of his big, open mouth, closed eyes smiles. I carried that with me to Louisiana, along with the support techniques, which I taught to every class.
Teaching high school turned out not to be for me. I taught for two years and completed a masters in education only to find that my interests lie more in literature itself. I am now completing coursework for a Ph.D. in 20th-century American Literature at the University of Washington. Even though he would claim that he never taught me literature, he has a share in the responsibility for where I am now for he taught me as a young man how to be a student and how to be a teacher. From a technical, pedagogical standpoint, his methods, lecture, memorization, repetition, and compositon, was largely outdated. But, as he said, his intention was never to teach material. Yesterday my inbox was full of emails from my former classmates sharing the news of our loss, reminiscing about Gerencher and his basement room, and thinking of ways we could show our appreciation for a man who touched us all so deeply. On this sad occasion, it certainly was not some short story by Hawthorne or a the pedogogical value of a thirty-minute oral presentation that brought the St. Joseph community together to say goodbye. As Gerencher showed me when I sat in that fake study hall watching the man work those ten years ago, the practice of the subject has nothing to do with educating the students. In that dank basement room, Thomas Gerencher taught us, his students, to be young men and women and we are forever grateful.
I heard from one of my former students recently who attends McNeese State University in Louisiana who wanted to thank me for the teaching her the support techniques that they were the main reason she was the most advanced student in her composition class. It seems Gerencher knew more about teaching English than he let on.
Gerencher was a great man and a great teacher. He will be sorely missed. If you knew him and you feel like it, I would love it if you would post a story or something about him on my blog. For those of you for whom none of this makes sense, thanks for reading anyway. You would have liked G. too.