What Makes a Great Teacher
With a title like What I Learned From Stephen King, I suppose at some point you and I are going to need to sit down and discuss the subject of teachers. I also suppose now would be as good a time as any.
Stephen King once said, “Good teachers can be trained, if they really want to learn. Great teachers, like Socrates, are born.” He should know. He taught writing to high school students at Hampden Academy in Hampden, Maine, plus spent a year teaching as a writer-in-residence at his alma mater, the University of Maine, in the late 1970s while still establishing himself as a writer.
I can’t tell you whether King considers himself to be a good teacher or a great one, though his comments on the topic have never been all that flattering. “High school teachers are sort of like Pavlov’s dogs,” King once quipped. “Pavlov’s dogs were taught to salivate at the sound of a bell, and high school teachers are taught to drop their mouths open and begin to work at the sound of one for about forty minutes. Then another bell rings, and they shut up and go away.”
I could tell you that I consider King to be a great teacher, but then I’m biased. I write a monthly column called What I Learned From Stephen King. On the list of great influencers in my life, the man holds a lot of clout. But why? And perhaps more importantly, how?
It’s really rather curious when you think about it. How is it possible that you need not even meet someone for them to make such a profound impact on your life? And why do we listen ever attentive to the words of some while not others? Is it for the sound of their voice, which our ears it seems were born to hear, like radios tuned to a station that broadcasts more clearly than most? What is it about certain souls that gives them an all-access pass to be able to reach into the deepest, most private places of your heart, to touch it with a divine hand, and whisper: “Grow.”
Good teachers inform, educate, and inspire, but great teachers hold a certain kind of magic that enables them to appear at the exact moment you need them the most. They carry with them a gift of prophecy to say the right things at the right times, the times we are most open to hearing. Like angels, they float in and sometimes out of our lives, disappearing and reappearing to lend us their wings, teach us a new life lesson, or sometimes just to make us smile.
A great teacher is one part knowledge, and two parts magic. Sure, I’ve learned a whole lot about writing from Stephen King, and there’s much more that I’ve learned about life from his books. This monthly column I’ve been graciously afforded by King’s publishers has so far been a laundry list of those highlights, but today I’d like to take us off the beaten path for a spell. I’d like, if I may, to share with you a little bit of the magic.
For me, I think the magic began when I was 10 years old reading about the Loser’s Club in Stephen King’s epic novel, IT. The Losers Club consisted of seven kids, outcasts often picked upon and picked apart, until in one great scene they pick up rocks and chuck them at their bullies. I was being bullied every day when I was 10, and the book came to me at the right place and the right time. It gave me the strength to fight back, in more ways than one. I’ll never forget the day that kid decided to pick a fight with me for the last time. His name was David, and he presumed that I would just take it, as I had taken it every day up until that point, but on this particular day I wanted to be like Beverly Marsh and Eddie Kasbrack, Richie Tozier and Bill Denbrough, Ben Hanscom, Stan Uris, and Mike Hanlon. The only problem was, they had each other, and I was alone. I wasn’t sure if I had the strength to fight back on my own, but with them I knew I could defeat the monster. So when David tapped me on the shoulder to punch me, I swung the 1,138 page hardback novel around and hit him with it, square in the jaw. Bev, the boys and I got in a few more swings too. He never messed with us again.
Right place, right time.
I could tell you about the time Carrie White saved me from becoming too religious. Right place, right time. Or, I could tell you about the moment Leland Gaunt made me think twice before becoming too needful of my most needful thing. Right place, right time.
But I think the story that best illustrates the magic is this.
About a year ago, I took a trip to my hometown of Columbus, Indiana. The flight there had been somewhat traumatic and overly dramatized by the unexpected occurrence of a (these days) rare panic attack just before take-off. I still don’t know what started it. I had been happy just moments before. I hadn’t had any caffeine. Everything was peaches-and-cream-fine-and-dandy until the plane began it’s slow crawl down the tarmac, and I started to feel like I couldn’t breathe.
It seemed clear to me that the oxygen was being vacuumed out of the plane, and yet I was the only one experiencing anything. My throat closed all the more at the thought that this was perhaps one of the most inopportune moments in life to have a panic attack, or any attack for that matter. My mind became like a machine, racing faster, picking up speed in time with the plane itself, sizzling with questions like: What happens when someone has a heart attack or seizure in the middle of a flight? Do they land the plane? Is there a doctor on board? Why is it not mandatory to have a trained medical specialist on every aircraft?
I drank. Lots of cold water at first (which always helps, by the way – it reminds you that if you can swallow, then you can breathe) and then I progressed to wine, managing a steady buzz to keep myself under control. It wasn’t until halfway through the flight when we dropped straight down for over two minutes that I began audibly screaming — and I wasn’t the only one. I’d experienced drops before, but nothing like this, the kind of drop that pushes your stomach up into your esophagus. To have experienced it sober would have been frightening, but to experience it while already under the duress of a panic attack was sheer torture.
The two minutes felt like two hours, and when it was over the captain apologized, claiming we had hit a very unexpected wind tunnel. (More like a worm hole, I thought to myself.) He further apologized for the fact that we would need to brace ourselves as we had dropped so far, we were among the mountains of Colorado, and needed to angle the plane practically like a rocket in order to go straight up, or we would run the risk of hitting a mountain head on.
When the plane finally landed safely in Indiana, I was so grateful I nearly kissed the ground after exiting the aircraft.
Ten days later, I found myself on another flight, back to Los Angeles. These were friendly skies. So far.
Needless to say, I had not been looking forward to this plane ride home. One of the worst things about panic attacks is that when you start to think about them, you start to have them. The more you think about them, the worse it gets. Trying NOT to think about them is next to impossible right after you’ve had one. It’s a never-ending cycle.
“Maybe my panic attacks aren’t so random,” I muttered to myself, looking out my window. After all, hadn’t there been plenty of reason to panic? The plane had nearly crashed. Twice. Perhaps these attacks were more premonitory in nature.
Fortunately, for this flight home, I’d only had an hour of sleep the night before, so I was exhausted enough that my anxiety was minimal. Just enough in fact to keep me awake so that I could read more of The Shining. A natural choice of prose for someone experiencing panic attacks while riding on an airplane, yes? “I must be a genius,” I said aloud, facetiously. Still, I read on…
A lot of folks, they got a little bit of shine to them. They don’t even know it. But they always seem to show up with flowers when their wives are feelin blue with the monthlies. They do good on school tests they don’t even study for. They got a good idea how people are feelin as soon as they walk in the room. I come across fifty or sixty like that. But maybe only a dozen, countin my gram, that knew they were shinin.
I saw a bit of myself in the remarks Halloran was making to five-year old Danny Torrance, who was just discovering his strong psychic instincts. I suppose I am one of those people who knows when to bring the coffee at the exact moment it’s needed, when it’s okay to confront someone and when it is most definitely not, how someone is feeling on the inside no matter how well they may mask it on the outside — and maybe, just maybe, I had also been given a way of knowing when something was not quite right with the world. The oxygen that goes short in the room, my throat that closes up and my inability to swallow, all red flags of danger up ahead. The universe’s way perhaps of saying, “The shit is about to hit the fan. Brace yourself.”
But the thing you got to remember, my boy, is this: Those things don’t always come true.
That’s true. Old man Halloran was right. Most of the things I dread don’t come true. The oxygen didn’t go out of the room, really. I didn’t faint. The plane didn’t crash. Not to mention the other things I am so certain of that don’t come true: That I will experience chaos if I don’t say my prayers, that I WON’T experience chaos if I do. That I cannot overcome the challenge of the day. That I will never fall in love again. All disproved.
Maybe I don’t know it all. Maybe there’s a greater plan.
Maybe I’m not in charge.
People who shine can sometimes see things that are gonna happen, and I think sometimes they can see things that did happen. But they’re just like pictures in a book. Did you ever see a picture in a book that scared you, Danny? You were scared, but you knew it couldn’t hurt you, didn’t you? Well, that’s how it is sometimes. If you see something bad… sometimes you just need to look the other way, and when you look back, it’ll be gone. Are you digging me?
“I’m digging it,” I said to myself.
And that’s when we hit the first turbulence.
The first big bumps of my homecoming flight. My heart dropped into my stomach. Better than the stomach to the esophagus, by the way.
“Just keep reading,” I thought. “… Just. Keep. Reading.”
I looked down to the next sentence.
The plane ain’t gonna crash, doc.
And there it was. Plainer than if God himself had come down with fanfare and sang it to me with a choir of angels. I read it again, not believing the choice of metaphor.
The plane ain’t gonna crash, doc.
And I knew then that it wasn’t. From that point forward, any turbulence was like a roller coaster ride. We could have had another two minute drop, and I’d have known beyond any shadow of a doubt… the plane ain’t gonna crash.
More than that, I knew it was not in my hands.
We don’t always get to choose our own adventures. I’m not sure we even get to choose our own teachers. We are drawn. We are pulled like magnets towards who, what, when and where of the universal whim, though never without reason.
We don’t always get to choose, but the magic exists, and I think the more you acknowledge the magic, the more it exists for you.
A good teacher knows. Ask them, and they’ll tell you.
A great teacher, you’ll never have to ask. They’ll simply show you.
If it’s the right place, and if the time is right.
“What I Learned from Stephen King” is a Cemetery Dance Online exclusive series of articles about the wisdom, spirituality and life lessons found within the works of Stephen King. Jason Sechrest began his career at 15 years old as a full-time staff writer for Femme Fatales magazine. His writing credits include LA Weekly,Frontiers, Entertainment Weekly and more. He tweets as @JasonSechrest and posts often on Facebook.