Sophomore year of high school is a time typically marked by ennui and adolescent angst. Mine was an anomaly. It was the year I began driving, playing varsity sports and trombone solos. It was when I began paying attention to my dreams and reflecting on the idiosyncrasies of my family – the year the scales fell from my eyes. And this is no coincidence: Tenth grade was the year I had Mr. Cleary as a teacher, not just for one class but two.
When he came to North Penn High School in suburban Philadelphia, Mr. Cleary was young. Even we sophomores knew that. He was lean, with blue eyes that snapped when he was saying something he wanted to be sure we understood. The rumor was that he had studied to be a priest; that's why he knew Latin so well. None of us giggling girls could understand why Mr. Cleary would want to lock himself away in priesthood and we were glad that he didn't.
We were beginning Latin students with just one year of declensions before entering Mr. Cleary's class. He threw Caesar at us, of course, but prodded us to go beyond the state-approved texts, introducing us to the poetry of Ovid and Sappho. Latin II was the start of my fascination with word derivations. It began as an exercise for an insecure student seeking extra credit. Mr. Cleary awarded points for finding English words related to the Latin vocabulary of the week. I spent happy hours on the floor of our living room poring over my family's equivalent of the OED for English words related to the likes of malus, civitas and obsideo. Add diagramming sentences to the list of Latin class lessons. I continue to do that when my own run-ons become absurdly unwieldy.
Mr. Cleary must have been the inspiration behind an assembly we put on for the entire school – the second-year Latin class! It was a fast-paced sophomoric musical: "There's no language like Rome's language, a dead language we know. Everything about it is appalling. My grade's are falling. It's got to go."
For all that I came to love Latin, it was Mr. Cleary's English class that completely captured me. He dutifully assigned The Merchant of Venice, Jane Eyre and the book reports that must have been required for tenth graders by the Pennsylvania Department of Education. Mr. Cleary followed the rules but he did it his own way: We read the obligatory literature out loud. I loved Jane Eyre and had spent a large part of eighth grade mooning over the romance between an orphan girl with my same plain name and an older, distant man. But when it came to reading Bronte aloud, it was a classmate who caught the cadences and could make the sentences flow like water over smooth stones. I was captivated by the sensuality of those words. When I learned much later that Mr. Cleary loved rhythm and dancing, I understood why he introduced his students to group read-aloud.
Mr. Cleary assigned book reports like every teacher, but he hand-picked the books his students would read and heard the reports orally in one-on-one conversations. This was my introduction to Picture of Dorian Gray and Oscar Wilde, and to George Bernard Shaw. I did not like or begin to understand Man and Superman. Ignoring the procrastination that caused me to read terribly small print through the night before the deadline, I tried to be grown-up about why. Mr. Cleary cut to the chase: "Did you get much sleep last night?" he asked.
His most lasting legacy for me was neither Latin nor reading aloud nor oral book reports. It was Mr. Cleary's weekly essay assignments. The topics were basic: Sight. Smell. Sound. Touch. I wrote about the thudding resonance of a wooden spoon stirring chocolate pudding as it thickens, the coarse pulse of a serrated knife cutting through the peel of a banana. Inspired by "In the Hall of the Mountain King," I wrote about mother-of-pearl canopies over wild and wind-blown fields. Surely I produced my first purple prose as a sophomore. When Mr. Cleary had us write a profile I chose my Quaker grandma. The first praise I ever received as a writer – and among the most precious – came when he returned that essay with a note: "You brought tears to these old Irish eyes."
Mr. Cleary left our high school after my sophomore year for Villanova, Ohio State and, eventually, University of Massachusetts in Amherst, where he settled for most of his life teaching Latin language, Latin poetry and Virgil's Aeneid. When the Internet came along his curiosity and thirst for information must have made him pounce on its potential. One day in the late 1990s I got an email from him. "I found you," he said, "and I'm not at all surprised that you are a writer."
That launched a new relationship. We stayed in occasional touch through emails, and he regularly commented on the published stories I sent him or he found online. Ever the devoted student and responsive teacher. I visited him twice in Amherst with my sister, who lives nearby. He insisted that I call him "Vince," and I tried. Ultimately it was his one failure with me.
Vincent J. Cleary died in September. I did not know about his death until January, when his daughter kindly responded to my Christmas card with the news. I read all of the obituaries and was touched that North Penn High School was mentioned among the more lofty institutions where he had taught. From all the accolades of his life, it was clear that he was a devoted and innovative teacher wherever he went.
It's not often we get to thank the mentors of our childhood. They generally drift into a hazy past along with favorite dolls and secret crushes. One of the joys of my life is that I was able to tell Mr. Cleary how much his teaching meant to me – how it changed me in ways neither of us could have imagined back in that tenth-grade Pennsylvania classroom.
Today, when I am stuck in a story with no notion of how to escape from my own mire, I remember Mr. Cleary's most enduring instructions: Simplicity. Clarity. Passion. I would wish him to rest in peace, but suspect that he would prefer exploring, discovering and teaching. Dominus vobiscum, Mr. Cleary.