The Friday before our book came out, Jake and I met up with our friends Richard and Danea for dinner at Pizza King in Longview.
Pizza King is a ’50s-style, mom-and-pop diner that holds a tight grip on the hearts of many people who grew up in the area. You step inside, and it’s like you’re a kid again: the smiling cartoon logo dude, the wholesome red and white interior, the epic wait before you can stuff your faces with hot, delicious pepperoni, cheese and crust.
(To give you an idea of this place’s pull, when I thanked my buddy Todd for driving four hours from Austin to attend our book launch on Aug. 3, he just shrugged and said, “Well, it’s an excuse to eat at Pizza King.”)
So there we were, sitting in our booth, sharing a King’s Delight and riding the nostalgia vibes, when Jake asked a simple question: who was the first teacher who inspired us to pursue the path we ended up taking?
I realized then that I had not thought about my teachers in years. They had all been overshadowed by my newspaper adviser at Kilgore College, whom I owe for everything. But as I pondered Jake’s question, a long-forgotten name popped into my head.
In high school in the mid-’90s, I was a weird kid masquerading as a normal one. I played football, rode four-wheelers and worked in the oilfield to keep gasoline in my Chevy Silverado. I reckoned someday I would take a full-time job in the petroleum industry, like real men do.
English was by far the most boring subject in school. We trudged through never-ending grammar worksheets, and the way I remember it, most of the writing assignments involved formulas designed to pass standardized tests. As a younger child, I had written a lot of short stories and comics, and my teachers in elementary and junior high school had nurtured my interest in reading and writing. By high school, however, I had completely submerged that side of myself.
Then I met Mrs. Kerby, our junior English teacher. Mrs. Kerby’s enthusiasm was contagious. We spent the beginning of each period writing in a journal that no one else would ever read, let alone grade or judge, and I warmed to this newfound opportunity for creative freedom. When she assigned a “descriptive writing” essay, for example, I turned in an outlandish story filled with over-the-top and grotesque misfits. One of the characters was obviously based on my teacher.
My story deviated significantly from the prompt, but Mrs. Kerby didn’t scold me or give me a bad grade. Instead, she delighted in my quirky vision. With her encouragement, over the course of my junior year, I gained the confidence to consider myself a writer. (She also made us read The Scarlet Letter, but hey, no one said this is a perfect world).
As I contemplated my education, other great teachers came to mind. I was also reminded of an assignment in my third-grade class, when I first learned the power of the written word. Mrs. Wilson asked every student to write a paper explaining how to make a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich, and when we came back from recess, she had made everyone a snack according to our specifications. My friend Emmett Shankle III ended his paper with the directive to “Eat up!” Instead of a sandwich on his desk, he now found a napkin sprinkled with bread crumbs. Oh no! Someone had followed his instructions too closely! There was a moment of panic. Would Emmett not get a sandwich? Then Mrs. Wilson retrieved another PB&J from her desk, and we all laughed with relief.
Many years later, on a Friday night at Pizza King, my friends offered variations of the same answer to Jake’s question. We each had teachers who fostered our talents, nurtured our interests and sent us on a path to becoming an artist, photographer, microbiologist or writer. These people played an essential role in shaping our lives, and I hope their contributions will not fade from memory so easily this time.
The pizza, well, it was as good as we remembered.