A teacher who will live on in every book

September 02, 2004|By DAN RODRICKS

ANOTHER SCHOOL year begins, and so we have a good moment to consider a lesson from the life of blind teacher Paul Flynn. The report in this space two Sundays ago of Flynn's death inspired several of his former students from Archbishop Curley High School to do something they all wished they had done while their teacher was alive, particularly in his final, sad months -- express the full measure of gratitude. It's a common condition -- the moving on with life and the failing to stop long enough to make sure those who lighted the path feel sufficiently appreciated. We're all guilty.

But better late than never.

Here some Curley boys testify about their English teacher, and I think the prose in these epistles speaks volumes about Paul Flynn's effectiveness in the classroom.

Roy Hatch, Curley Class of 1983:

"The last time I saw Mr. Flynn was about two years after my high school graduation. He was in a hospital waiting room waiting to have some blood drawn. I introduced myself -- he remembered me -- and I told him that I was an English major at Towson State.

"`You can't blame that on me,' he snorted.

"But I can. I blame Mr. Flynn for my choice in majors. I blame Mr. Flynn for my decision to become a frustrated, unpublished writer. And since I met my wife in a writing group for frustrated, unpublished writers, I can blame my marriage on him as well. It's his fault that I have all those different translations of Beowulf on my shelves. It is not an exaggeration to say that no teacher has had such a huge and measurable effect on me.

"No matter what darkness weighed Mr. Flynn down at the end, he left a light on for me."

Kevin Barton, Class of 1976:

"Paul Flynn was a truly brilliant man and should have been teaching at a university somewhere. He had a way of taking Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and making it an enjoyable assignment. He was demanding, but it developed us into good students.

"One semester I took a job working for Mr. Flynn after school. I drove him to his Walther [Avenue] apartment and would read to him papers, tests, etc. for several hours. It was easy tax free money, but more importantly it gave me an opportunity to respect and admire Mr. Flynn, not for what he couldn't do in life, but what he could do in life."

Thomas C. Peters was a student in Flynn's 10th-grade English class in the 1969-1970 academic year.

"He would hire some of us as readers to assist him in the grading of student compositions, and it was as a reader that I began to realize some of the added difficulties he had to face to continue his profession," Peters wrote. "There was the financial cost of hiring assistants and the additional concentration required to listen to someone read and not have the leisure to reread passages at will.

"In the summer of 1970 he hired me to read for him several hours every morning while he took a course at Johns Hopkins University. I was a 16-year-old East Baltimore kid taking the number 22 bus over to Charles Street to that daunting campus.

"I would meet him in the library and escort him to a reading room. I believe it was a course in existential literature, and I can only imagine how badly I must have butchered the sentence structure or syntax of many of the esteemed texts that were on the reading list. And yet with his powers of concentration, he was somehow able to wade through my atrocities and make sense of the profound ideas in these works of literature. He ended the course by dictating his final exam to me, which I wrote down in those famous blue books for college exams, and I think he got an A."

For years Leo Ryan, Class of 1976, made a personal vow to seek out Paul Flynn and express gratitude.

"These unfulfilled promises most often crept from a mind engrossed in a good book, a mind that had been opened by Paul Flynn," Ryan wrote.

"Paul Flynn was wildly intelligent, divinely patient, and had a wonderful dark sense of humor. Perhaps that is one reason he reached me as he did.

"He was fond of playing LP recordings of Shakespeare plays to us in class. One day, as he attempted to place the needle on the record he dropped it, scratching the vinyl. ... He chuckled and turned to us and said, `There goes my summer job at WCAO.' The nervous silence of twenty young men gave way to guffaws as we joined Paul in laughing at himself.

"On another occasion, one of my classmates wore a tie that was a little wild, even by early '70s standards. Mr. Flynn made his entrance to the room, sat down and turned his head in my classmate's direction and deadpanned, `Jim, that's some tie you have on.' Stunned silence washed over the room as everyone thought, `That's it, he's been faking all this time, and he's seen every funny face, every childish prank, every head nodding off in class.' Just then Paul erupted in laughter, telling us his aide had tipped him off to the tie earlier in the day. Mr. Flynn had succeeded again in teaching us that there was nothing, not even blindness, that was so serious it could not be the source of laughter.

"The most important thing I learned [from Paul Flynn] was that there is hope and light and beauty in the shared human experience. I learned to let great works of literature wash over me, to erode the darkness of loneliness and isolation and shine the light of art into the corners of my soul. I only wish that I could have told him that it was a blind man who taught me to see. And to thank him for the gift.

"Paul Flynn will live on in me. With every book read, every poem consumed he and I will be like Gatsby: `... boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.'"

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