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The Greatest Teacher I Ever Had | EduClaytion

The Greatest Teacher I Ever Had

I wish you would’ve known him. There really was no one else like Ron Forsythe. Ever. No teacher made a bigger impact on me in the classroom, and I’ve had some great ones.

I can still hear him strutting down the hall, singing the bada-da-da of Miles Davis or some jazz legend, umbrella tapping along the hallway floor. We would smile before he ever made it into the room. And when he arrived in the doorway you never knew what was coming next. Sometimes he would stop, scan the room, and flash that mischievous grin. Something was about to happen. Something was always about to happen with Forsythe. Other days he would stroll right past us, briefcase in hand, calling class into session with his famous anthem of “hubba, hubba, hubba!”

I can’t help but imitate that sometimes to this day. Just saying “hubba, hubba” as I walk in the room some days gets me smiling. My students smile too. They’ve never known (until now) that I was just paying tribute to a man I will never forget. He looms powerfully in my mind even now, four years beyond his death in September 2006.

***

After spending part of the 1950s as a pitcher in the Brooklyn Dodgers system and part of the 60s in Nigeria with the Peace Corps, Ron Forsythe spent the latter part of his life teaching English, literature, writing, and life to students at California University of Pennsylvania.

His voice boomed. He shocked people. He was controversial. He forced us to think. He challenged our assumptions and got our attention in a time when a lot of teachers from the old guard couldn’t figure it out.

In ways I appreciate so much more now as an educator, he absolutely dominated the classroom. He had presence yet was wily. Behind those dark glasses churned the mind of a master conductor. He rarely needed to look at a piece of paper yet every second of his class was packed full of meaning and instruction.

I took him five times, no easy feat since those sections always closed quickly. As a 17-year-old freshman, I was blown away on the first day of his class. I wondered if I had made a big mistake by going to college. I squirmed and feared I would never make it. Forsythe always brought the intensity early on. He wanted to eliminate the weak. It would be his way right away or else, “Get out.” You didn’t sleep in that man’s class.

Then the teaching began. I could never believe the patience he had with students who cared. He worked through the room, his hand resting on a shoulder here and there while the questions flowed. The quality of writing from his students was so far above average that faculty from other departments sought him out just to understand how he did what he did.

When asked, I’m sure he said that unlike most profs in the English department, he didn’t have students sit around holding hands and talking about their feelings. Did I mention his colleagues didn’t always appreciate him? Well, the ones that mattered did, and his students adored him.

After I returned for grad school, we continued our friendship. Since he walked everywhere, I would drive him home when I was around. I’d tell him about my life and he’d tell me about the world. Many times when we pulled up to his house, he would open his door, turn back, put a hand on my shoulder, and leave me with one last peg to hang my future on.

***

I called him after I got hired to teach my first college classes. So cherished were his words that I actually took notes during his phone call. “You’ve got to bring it baby,” he told me.

The last time I spoke to him was in May 2006, just a few months before he died. We had been trying to get together for months but his failing health prevented him from leaving the house. I don’t know if many students were calling him at home at that point, but he was always eager to chat. I gave him the updates on my teaching career. I was going to be fine he said. I told him I would call him again. “Make sure you do,” he said. I could hear the sadness in his voice, the longing for that contact with lives he could impact.

I never spoke with him again. What I most regret is that I didn’t find out about his death until the services were completed. I would have paid tribute to him at the university’s memorial service. I suppose that’s why I’m writing this. Even now a lump swells in my throat as I remember one of the most important men I was lucky enough to have in my life. I don’t know if he would’ve agreed, but we are all part of a plan, nothing just happens. Ron Forsythe was a major part of my plan.

I can’t help but smile as I scan the comments about him on RateMyProfessor.Com. He made a mark on so many lives. It’s bittersweet to read all these remarks when those marvelous days of swinging by the old office for a chat over tea are so long gone. I miss him.

I learned so much from him. He taught me to think. He taught me how to write. In a lot of ways, without either of us knowing it, he taught me how to teach, to captivate, to impact.

Yeah, I wish you would’ve known him. Maybe some of you did. We all remember the greatest teacher we ever had, that person who made such a massive impact on your life because one day they decided they were going to stand in front of a classroom for the rest of their lives. Life is short, but the contact we have with others can be great. You’ve got to bring it. If I make half the impact on others that Forsythe made on me, then I’ll be just fine. Hubba, hubba, hubba, baby.

__________________________________________________________________________
Who was the greatest teacher in your life?  I would really love to hear your memories.

Connect with me on Twitter @ClayMorganPA.

29 Responses to “The Greatest Teacher I Ever Had”

  1. WorstProfEver September 25, 2010 at 11:15 am #

    Very nice article, and sounds like a man well worth knowing. What I find interesting is that he had such great life experiences to bring to the classroom — I think that’s something greatly overlooked these days, when people just hand you an Education degree and act like that’s enough.

    My greatest teacher…was a professor I had in grad school. Grouchy as hell. Also mean as hell if he didn’t like you. Great performer, best thinker I’ve ever met, razor-sharp editor. Dyed-in-the-wool cynic, which is why I won’t name him here — he’s still alive and he’s just the sort to roll his eyes.

    • educlaytion September 25, 2010 at 3:43 pm #

      Great point about life experience vs education credits. Your great prof sounds fun. The best ones are often grouchy I think.

  2. Renée A. Schuls-Jacobson September 27, 2010 at 1:20 pm #

    Clay:

    What a beautiful entry. We can only hope our students feel this way about us, right? I mean, we do our best to bring our A game every day, right? I have gone to ratemyprofessor.com and I have earned a few chili peppers. So that makes me feel good, but the real proof happens when I run into people years later and find out that they are successful; that they tell me my lessons on grammar helped their writing; that my attention helped them personally and, ultimately, professionally.

    I wrote about some of my favorite professors on my blog early on: Toni Flores and Lee Quinby. But there were dozens of others. I was fortunate to have had a host of wonderful professors.

    Maybe one day someone will write a blog about me. You should send your entry to your professor’s family. I’ll bet it would mean a lot to them.

    xoxoRASJ

    • educlaytion September 27, 2010 at 3:43 pm #

      Thanks Fryber Renee. Early on in a teaching career, you just try to keep your head above water. Then I settled in and started to hear back from students. Now I wonder what the future will look like. I love hearing back from my students and sharing stories. RateMyProfessor is fun (unless people hate you I guess). I’ll have to go check out your chili peppers now.

    • Renee Schuls-Jacobson September 10, 2011 at 8:35 am #

      It’s wonderful to read this tribute again. So many of my good ones are gone to cancer now. I wonder who will be blogging about you in five years. ;-)

  3. Lòt Poto-a September 27, 2010 at 8:01 pm #

    My favorite professor is an old vet who fought in a previous war (I think either Vietnam or Gulf, can’t remember). Teaches World History and Euro. He’s a tough, Republican, militaristic atheist who I thought that I would loath (given that I’m a young, black, immigrant with Liberal ideas).

    What happened is that we quickly became friends (relatively, even though we would get into heated political debates that would last for several class sessions). He soon got lymphatic cancer, survived chemo, and came back to teach. He’s taught me to be a fighter, to never give up, that even though the cup is clearly empty and dry, fill it up with your spit and fight back.

    • educlaytion September 27, 2010 at 11:54 pm #

      The great teachers will put communication with students over their own pride. In other words, they can build relationships with anyone despite differences. My teacher described here was extremely different from me in many ways, but we still developed a strong connection. Thanks for sharing your experiences. Don’t let the connection you have with good teachers go.

  4. Wendizzle September 29, 2010 at 4:17 pm #

    I started at Cal U after he passed, but I’ve heard about him from other professors. They always speak highly of him. I’m glad you wrote this article. Now I know who to blame for your awesome teaching skills.

    • educlaytion September 29, 2010 at 4:58 pm #

      Nice of you to say that. I am not surprised to hear that people still talk about him there. Crazy cycle now that I think about it. I go to Cal U, learn, and become a teacher. You attend my classes, learn, and then transfer to Cal U. It’s like the circle of life. Maybe Elton John will sing about us.

  5. Ironic Mom March 9, 2011 at 12:10 am #

    I’m late to the party, Clay, via your link on Larry’s post today. I briefly saluted four teachers who’ve impacted me.

    As always, your post is nicely done. Your comment to Renee is true…those first few years are all about keeping your head above water.

    Later, sometimes, payback comes, like your phone call to Forsythe. The best presents from students are always calls or letters (or emails) after the fact. I have a file called “Pick Me Up” (literally) where I put students’ notes. On those days when my shoulders slump, my head meets the desk, and I wonder what I’m doing, I’ll pull one out and remind myself.

    • educlaytion March 9, 2011 at 12:29 am #

      I have done that exact same thing. I have a few emails that remind me it’s worth it on the tough days. I love hearing from students like that. I’m off to read your comments at Larry’s site.
      In case you don’t know what we’re talking about, read this article by Larry Hehn, a tribute to his best teacher ~ http://larryhehn.com/2011/who-is-the-best-teacher-you-ever-had/

      • Leanne Shirtliffe September 9, 2011 at 6:54 pm #

        A pleasure to read this post again. This line is poetry: “I’d tell him about my life and he’d tell me about the world.” And I’m willing to wager some strong Canadian dollars that you’re Mr. Forsythe for a new generation.

  6. Kim Wilson August 25, 2011 at 7:45 pm #

    I wish I would’ve known him too. To hear you talk and write about him, I know he’d be a dear friend. Those people who sing their lifesongs in a way that mesmerizes and captivates are so few and far between. So many people want to sing the song that others want to hear so they’ll be well-liked, but the truly remarkable ones are those who sing the song that’s inside them because it’s what they were made to do. The interesting thing is that they end up being well-liked anyway. What great advice for anyone in any career: You’ve got to bring it, baby. Although I’ve never seen you in the classroom, I’m sure you take that to heart. Keep singing your lifesong because others need to hear it!

    • educlaytion August 26, 2011 at 12:32 pm #

      Thanks Kim. Everything falls away but relationships. Good to be challenged by people who are memorable in a positive way.

  7. HopefulLeigh September 9, 2011 at 10:59 am #

    This is a beautiful piece, Clay. I couldn’t help but remember my own favorite HS English teacher, who died right before my sophomore year of college. I regret that I didn’t get to talk to him one last time but I do know he knew what his life’s work meant to me. And for now, that has to be enough.

  8. Tamara September 9, 2011 at 11:21 am #

    You definitely bring it, baby. Your professor would be proud.

  9. Trish Loye Elliott September 9, 2011 at 11:21 am #

    What a wonderful tribute. I wish I’d had a teacher like him. I did have some amazing teachers through the years but none that impacted me quite so much. I’m happy that you had such a good experience and I’m sorry for your loss. I think Forsythe would be happy to know he influences you still. Hubba hubba hubba.

  10. susielindau September 9, 2011 at 12:09 pm #

    First of all why are readers so stingy with the “like” button. They obviously liked it since they commented saying so! Just sayin’.
    I was lucky to have a few teachers who impacted me. One was Sister Judith who was my English teacher in high school. She encouraged me to write fiction. I ended up testing out of all the English requirements in college. (Catholic school helped with that) I became an art major (UW-Madison) which I got a BS in and became a botanical and medical illustrator. Years later here I am writing again and have never been happier! I often wonder how my life would be different if I had gone into writing instead, but I have no regrets since like you I believe opportunities happen for a reason and I’ve been on the right path all along.
    Great re-post!

  11. reconciling viewpoints September 9, 2011 at 6:46 pm #

    Great post, Clay. I had some really good teachers, but none that I would call great. Maybe that has to do with the whole math/physics/engineering schtick — guys that teach that stuff aren’t exactly known for their personality. (Or if they are, it’s not good!)

    I’m sure your students appreciate the work you do…. keep it up!

  12. PCC Advantage September 12, 2011 at 11:15 am #

    My favourite teacher was my Grade 11 English teacher named Mrs. Bell. She was a sweet, quiet Irish woman who just seemed to “get me”. I was a bit of a spitfire in high school and always seemed to get in trouble for one reason or another – talking in class or not doing the assignments as requested, etc. Mrs Bell, however, just let me be me. She let me make jokes in class, laugh with my friends, and stare out the window for 10 minutes at a time – she seemed to know that all of this ridiculous behaviour somehow seemed to foster my creative side.

    It’s because of her that I fell in love with Shakespeare and creative writing. It was because she allowed me to be myself that I had the confidence to continue on being just who I was (very rare for teenage girls) and that confidence carried me through my life thus far. She was an amazing woman and I owe my love of writing completely to her! :)

    Lovely post, Clay! Just beautiful. :)

  13. Pete January 29, 2012 at 11:34 pm #

    I agree with you! I was also lucky enough to have Forstyhe as a teacher. Got to spent hours and hours at his office- eating peanuts- and talking about greek literature, Ithaca, Ulysses, Makarios, Cavafys…What an inspiration…I owe to him the fact that I went to graduate school earned a PhD and became a teacher myself…Do you have a photo of him? I wanted one for my office to show my students a legend….

    • educlaytion January 30, 2012 at 12:33 pm #

      Thanks for the comment Pete. I don’t have any personal pics of him. He certainly was an inspiration.

  14. Misty Townsend October 31, 2012 at 8:23 pm #

    Found your entry through a Google search for information regarding Ron. I lost touch with him after graduation and regret it every moment. He was the single most influential educator I have ever known, and he touched my life both professionally and personally in so many ways. He warned me about the Kafkaesque metamorphosis many in education experience by selling out to the political climate–a lesson I have never forgotten. He lives on through my teaching, as I continue to incorporate into my lessons all he taught me. Thanks for sharing your lovely tribute.

    • Educlaytion October 31, 2012 at 8:38 pm #

      Thanks for reading and sharing back Misty.

  15. Joe December 24, 2012 at 2:29 pm #

    Clay -

    I was one of Ahab’s projects and spent hundreds of hours with him, Bernie and Alan. Books, baseball and life. I listened to every word and loved it. For the first time ever, I felt like I belonged.

    Last time I saw him was at his house, maybe a month or so before he died. We watched the Pirates and talked about life. The world. Raising children. Having meaning in life. And, of course, we bitched about Republicans. Like your last experience, mine was the same. He took my hand in his massive paw and made me promise to come back soon.

    When he died it was like the sun shattered. This man who saved me from myself, the white-haired, dapper giant of booming voice and legendary whistling syncopation. A world without Forsythe was a dark and lonely cosmos. For my entire adult life to that point, he was always there for me. Teaching, coaching, and chiding. I couldn’t imagine how to be a good man without him. At the funeral, I thanked Cheryl and the boys for sharing him with the world. Those were the only words I could muster.

    As years have passed, I had many successes but never did the world feel more alive and rewarding than when with him. He was bigger and brighter than any of us. Thank you for reminding me of his profound impact on me. Heroes walk this earth and Ron Forsythe was mine. I love that man.

    Best -
    Joe

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