Forty years on, she renews an acquaintance with a teacher who changed her lifeby Ann Bowers
Public education in America bears public scorn, because many people carry baggage from their experiences and seem eager to discuss the few incompetent teachers in their lives.
I too had those experiences. But it has been said that it takes only one good teacher to change a life forever. Mine was Perry Mann. He arrived in my high school in the turbulent '60s, breathing fresh air and new ideas into all of us who hungered for knowledge of the events shaping our nation.
Motivated by him, inspired by him and armed with a list of books he gave me, I went off to college and became a teacher.
I lost track of him but never forgot him, and last May we were reunited through a comment I made on social media. Posts from former classmates told me that at 90 he was still practicing law in my hometown. I wrote him to tell him I turned out OK and to thank him for his profound influence on me in my years of teenaged confusion. He responded, and we have been in daily contact since.
He had published thousands of articles, and began to send me some of them. When I asked him where these were filed, he said on his computer, in file cabinets and desk drawers.
Mr. Mann taught me long ago that words change the world, and he cautioned me to use mine carefully. After all these years, he's still at it.
Listen to this description of his imagined sleeping spot for a butterfly: "Where does this creature, constructed with spider webs and filaments of silkworms, wings woven of cumulus clouds, sculpted by Michelangelo and painted by da Vinci, go to relax, relive the day and dream of zinnias?
"I like to think she wings to a hemlock forest shaded in day and dark at night. Her nest, formed with the gossamer of milkweed and dyed purple with the juice of elderberries, is in the fork of a hemlock where a limb leaves the trunk and touches the clouds. An outgrowth of bark serves as her canopy. The queen of flowers lies there for the night, looked over by fairies and guardian angels sent by the Maker to protect this delicate, beautiful, and innocent creature, one that preys on nothing but just purloins pollen from zinnias."
Another essay makes a bottle of maple syrup and a grove of sugar maple trees objects of reverence. He describes a "sugar orchard, a cathedral of trees, nearly all of which were sugar maples ranging in age from fifty to two hundred years or more. In summer it was a sequestered island of cool and quiet; in the fall, a wonderland of yellow and red leaf. In the winter it was a vault of memories. A walk among those trees any time was a spiritual experience for me. It was my playground and my world of dreams. I would have built a cabin there for my dog and me, were boyhoods longer and dreams for real."
He continues with an account of the day he made syrup with his aunt, their last adventure together: "By ten o'clock on a sunny day following a freezing night, the orchard became a symphony of sights and sounds. From the icicles hanging from the spiles, tears of sap began to fall and to reflect the morning's sunrays like diamonds and to ping into pails. Suddenly the woods were filled with rays and sparkles and pings of drips, all of which had different pitches and produced a xylophone effect. It was a fairyland of sun and sounds and sights."
When he writes about how Alfred Edward Housman predicts the number of years he will have to see the cherry tree in Easter dress in "A Shropshire Lad," Mr. Mann sits on the porch of his hundred-year-old farmhouse and writes: "The cherry tree was alive with bees and other insects seeking the sweets of blooms. The whole of the world was in a wedding, a wedding that would serve to propagate it with a new generation of every living thing. As I sat there, I had the wish for more room, like say, fifty years more."
I wish I had back the 40 years I missed with him to discuss books, ideas and the human condition. I wish I had told him sooner about the impact he had on my life.
I collected his essays from the computer, the file cabinets and desk drawers, and approached him about a book. Now it's been published: "Mann and Nature," released last week by Kettle Moraine Publishing, a firm I started with my sons.
I think of the book as my gift to my teacher, and his gift to the world. Perhaps our story can change the conversation about teachers. Maybe we can talk more about the ones who changed our lives.
Ann Bowers, a retired public schoolteacher in Delavan, Wis., is an adjunct faculty member for Rockford College and a tutor for her former school district.