Neal Tonken taught me English in 10th grade. I don’t remember what he taught me about english games for kids 4th grade to start an essay, but that’s the way he would have started it. He was clear and direct in his writing.
Our first day of class in 1984 was his first day too. He’d been a lawyer and chucked it all to teach. He brought a bag of bread, a jar of peanut butter, and a jar of jelly. He asked us to describe how to make a sandwich. Then he read our instructions out loud, following along literally, placing the jar on top of the bag of bread.
My letter that prompted his response was the opposite. It was a mess of perfumery and words stacked on top of each other. If it had been an email, it would have triggered his spam filter. I’d just gotten my first job as a secretary and mentioned in passing I might try to either write or go to law school. John Dickerson is a co-anchor of CBS This Morning, co-host of the Slate Political Gabfest, host of the Whistlestop podcast, and author of Whistlestop and On Her Trail.
I’d written that letter to thank him. I learned later that lots of students had done the same. I can’t remember much from high school—too many sports concussions, maybe—but I can remember when that interest in learning arrived. I wandered lonely as a cloud in 10th grade. I wrote computer programs and played computer games and sports. My report cards from that period show that I glided along with only the mildest interruptions from applied effort.
I received from my upper school work program. The pages of Pride and Prejudice don’t look like they belong to the same kid. They are heavily underlined in red pen. There is writing in the margins. Tonken had made literature an adventure, throwing open trapdoors in the text in class to help us understand what was really going on. Actually, mostly he pressed us to do that for ourselves. This was not a class in which information was ladled over you.