Farewell to a teacher who was so much more

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Most of my high school teachers passed me off as either lazy or an underachiever -- labels that did not make an effort to pinpoint the mix of legitimate boredom and teenage immaturity that led me to be a lousy student.

Joseph McLaughlin, my English teacher during junior year, refused to write me off because I was not instantly an A student, nor would he accept whatever childish logic I had for not trying very hard.

By the time I met McLaughlin - I never thought of him as Mr. McLaughlin, just his last name as a form of endearment - I had thoroughly ruined my academic career.

Most teachers recognized that I was smart, but very few spent any time worrying about the loudmouthed kid who was happy to talk in class but never did the homework.

That's not an indictment on them.

I was squandering an education in a top-notch school system - but the public schools in Swampscott, Ma. were geared toward getting as many kids as possible into the most impressive colleges not helping outliers.

The small handful of us who were intelligent but did not produce good grades were sort of left adrift.

McLaughlin was one of the few who wondered why a kid who liked to read, could debate literature in class, and wrote decently enough for an 11th grader never did the homework or prepared for a test.

Unlike so many others, he was not willing to accept that since I was not a disruption in his class and was likable in an obnoxious sort of way, it would be okay for a student who seemed like he should be getting As to barely pass.

Instead of letting me skate, McLaughlin directly asked why I never did his weekly vocabulary homework, which involved writing a sentence with each word. Not doing the assignment cost me 20 points on the weekly exam, meaning a B- was my best possible outcome and the one I usually delivered.

I don't have the exact words, as this conversation happened roughly 24 years ago, but this is generally how it went. (He was much more eloquent than my recollection here.)

McLaughlin: How come you never turn in the vocabulary homework but always do well on the test?

Kline: I know what all the words mean, so writing a sentence with them is a waste of time.

My answer was childish, and many teachers would have been unbending in their desire to treat all students equally. McLaughlin, however, knew that one approach does not fit all, and he made me a deal.

If I got an A on the previous week's test, I did not have to do the homework the next week.

That bargain led to me study to make sure that even though I was naturally good with vocabulary, I wasn't just getting by on what was already in my head.

I would not do homework in the conventional sense, but I would honor a deal with a man who took the time to find out why.

There are other examples, like the time I turned in an ill-advised attempt at a book report where I wrote a story from the point of view of the main character talking about the events of the book.

Instead of just failing me - and I certainly did not do the assignment as assigned - he encouraged me on the writing I handed in, then made me do something a little closer to a conventional book report.

I assume McLaughlin knew that at some point it would click for me that just being smart alone wasn't enough and that I would find something worth working for.

The work part happened quickly, as lessons learned from people like McLaughlin and many others in my life made me a hard worker outside the classroom.

Finding the right recipe for how to make a living, however, was a longer journey.

Throughout all the searching, though, I was always a writer.

Sometimes I made a living that way, and at others I wrote as a labor of love.

Had McLaughlin not taken an interest in me, encouraged me, and found out why I wasn't like most of the other kids who passed through the rarified halls of Swampscott High School, I doubt that that would have been true.

When I learned McLaughlin had passed away, I posted the following line on the Facebook post linked to his obituary, where so many fellow students were sharing their tributes: "I am a writer because of this man."

I'm not sure that an educator can do more than take the time to change the life of a student who was slipping through the cracks.

I've written two well-received books, had articles published in nearly every newspaper or magazine I ever dreamed about writing for and now actually do make most of my living writing - a better living than I ever hoped for in the profession.

The work I do now is non-conforming, a weird mix of journalism, opinion, personality and analysis and I like to think McLaughlin would get a kick out of it.

Had McLaughlin not taken an interest and invested real time in me, I can't say I would have made all the other steps that led me to where I am today.

He could have let me slip by. He could have accepted that I wasn't causing problems or making learning hard for other students.

He chose not to, and I am eternally grateful.

Daniel B. Kline can be reached at dan@notastep.com