Mike on Mike: My First Mentor & AP English

Mr. Mach was the new English department chair at Carey, and my connection with him began slightly before I’d even met him (or at least I’d like to think).

It was still summer, and I was in Elmont, at a teacher’s supply store. I was waiting in line behind a female, who was (presumably) a teacher. She was talking about her fiancé, and mentioning that he’d be teaching and chairing at Carey this coming year.

All of this I overheard, but yet did not venture into the conversation. Instead, I wondered what department he would be teaching, and what the odds were that he would be teaching a class I had. By all estimations, I would never meet this guy, nor recount the odd story I had concerning the women in the store.

But, as it turns out, the Carey registrars had different plans. Mr. Mach did end up teaching my English class, and that singular variable probably had more of an impact on me than any other thing in my life to this point.

Mr. Mach was unique among the teachers I’d had at Carey. He was more authentic, and treated his students more like adults, than anyone else in the building. In retrospect, he was as different from a high school teacher as a college professor is; which makes sense since he also teaches at the university level.

He had a “hard ass” reputation. He was coming over from Elmont, and had been a Dean there. To Carey kids, deans were menacing men with hair pieces who laid the smack down on trouble makers.

(You can imagine our surprise when he had neither a hair piece, nor a desire to suspend people.)

Of course, my memory is not 100% accurate, but there were a few things that I hope are true to what actually happened over the course of the year. The first was a huge sign of trust, on the first day of class. He wrote his AOL screen name (and email) on the board. It was there for all of us. And he gave it willingly.

The next thing is a personal anecdote of mine. Mr. Mach had handed out a short story, which the class was to read. He then asked us to pick up on something. I had read it, and felt instantly I knew the glaringly obvious-yet-subtle hint the author had placed in the story. But I was shy, and I wanted to defer to another person in class.

One, two, then three people answered. All were wrong. Mr. Mach then smiled and said something to the effect of “It’s difficult…how about we read it again?” and that’s when I raised my hand. I remember the anxiety of that moment, but I said what I thought anyway:

“Well…he’s gay, isn’t he?”

At that, Mr. Mach smiled, and said yes. I’m sure there was a discussion about it, and I pointed out the location of the text that gave it away to me…or something…but that’s not what I remember. What I remember is, for the first time since grammar school, feeling slightly elevated among my classmates.

Some people might say otherwise, but I think that a feeling of superior ability is essential to academic success in High School. When I had been shot down (privately) in 7th grade because of a poorly written essay, I had lost all of the “swagger” I had gained from grammar school. I had felt inferior for the next four years. It was an early sign of my fragility. But still, in this, I had distinguished myself.

Now, finally, I had some sort of affirmation that I was not average. I had discerned something from close reading that 29 other students my age had not, or were not willing to share. It was finding the courage to use my voice.

Throughout the semester, Mr. Mach would continue to wow me with his realness. He would talk about his tie/shirt combos in class (an endlessly delightful conversation for men and women, though for different reasons), and he never talked down to his students. Always, we were equals.

I remember having a student teacher, who taught a class on poetry. I remember Mach sitting and observing, and at the start of the next class, asking US to evaluate the student teacher. I had partially decided the fate of a college student’s job interview. Wasn’t I just a kid?

By the time the regents had arrived, I was sure of myself and my ability in Mach’s classroom, and had no worries. Still though, at his urging, I, along with every other student in the English department, showed up to his Saturday morning extra help sessions. There were juice boxes- more of a joke, but still a welcomed refreshment. I achieved mastery on the regents, which is not difficult.

There would be two more experiences in 11th grade that Mach was paramount in. The first was an assignment- my first term paper. I needed to provide sources for my claims, and quotations from the book to back up what I had said. The interesting thing about our choice of books were that they had to be “banned”. I had never encountered a banned book before, but they changed the way I thought of writers. They would become a cornerstone of my literary beliefs as I went through college. In addition to that, I got some experience writing a “real” paper.

The final thing that Mr. Mach did as my teacher was allow me (and countless others) to participate in AP English. AP English was college level English taught in high school classrooms, with the opportunity to gain college credit. Formerly, it was the belief of the department that only the most deserving and academically excellent students should be allowed to take an AP course. As a result, the courses usually had housed between 12-15 students.

Mr. Mach’s philosophy was different. Anyone who wanted to take AP English would be given permission to do so. He believed that if we trusted our ability to handle the work, that there was no reason for us not to succeed. And it’s true- an English student with motivations can accomplish things in his or her discipline that equally motivated students of (let’s say) the sciences cannot, simply because English is about expression, rather than outright knowledge.

After Mr. Mach – 12th grade – Senior Year – was okay. I was in AP English, and my class contained many “smart people” – people who I had gone throughout all of high school with, but had never had a course with, because someone had deemed them a class above me many years prior.

It was an enjoyable experience, but more than anything else, there was a singularly enjoyable moment. We had just finished The Great Gatsby, and as part of an exam, the class had written an essay on it. As was customary, my teacher, Mrs. Bergbom, had chosen to read her favorite essay out loud to the class. It had been two weeks since I had written it, and all I remember thinking was “Hm, that’s exactly how I would’ve said that,” and “Nice word choice,” – the things I admired about the writer’s work. I had always envied the students whose work was read aloud, and you could not imagine my shock when she handed the essay back to me, and I realized that those were my words. It was the only time it happened all year, but it was an amazing feeling nevertheless. I had written the best Gatsby essay in the class.

That day, as I left class, a classmate of mine, Paul Valestra, who would wind up being the Salutatorian of the class, came up to me and said “Wow, Mike. That was a great essay. I didn’t know you could write like that.” The truth was, I didn’t know I could write like that, either.

Mr. Mach was still the chair during my senior year, and I visited him often. He helped me with my college essay, which I am still proud of. He offered advice and encouragement, and he made it okay for me to believe in myself and what only I thought I could accomplish.

The Gatsby essay, and the college essay were the last times I would feel good about something I’d written for the next three and a half years. Although I’d been accepted to several schools, including St. John’s University on scholarship, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my future.

Because of that, my father advised me to enroll at Nassau Community College, so that I had time to “figure out” what I wanted to do without spending thousands of dollars wastefully.

I was unsure of myself. I was unsure of my future. I took his advice. I gave up my voice.