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  Editor's Note

Sandpipers & Shepherds

Last year, when we solicited essays on the topic of “The Teacher Who Changed My Life,” we knew that we were inviting an avalanche of submissions. Sure enough, we were bombarded, for weeks, with tributes and testimonials that spanned 60 years of classes and every academic discipline.

As editor of HCM, I was technically exempt from submitting an essay. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t use this space to pay tribute to the teacher who changed my life.

I once estimated that between the start of my sophomore year and the end of my senior year, I had written approximately 250 dreadful poems. My “MO” was to bring them to Fenwick late at night and slip them under the office door of English Professor Robert Cording. These were really abominations, but Bob never tried to duck me. He had endless patience, and he could see that, while there wasn’t much promise in my work, there was a kind of crucial need behind my scribbling.

And so, he talked to me. He invited me to his home in Uxbridge for lunches that inevitably stretched into dinners. He gave me his own battered copy of The Directory of Little Magazines that I still own. He gave me a typewritten copy of his own first manuscript that I still treasure. And he commented—in that tiny handwriting that continues to send chills through his students ¾on every one of those terrible student poems. Until, in the spring of my senior year, as we sat at his dining room table hunched over a poem of mine, he said to me, “I think you should be writing fiction.”

Perhaps he had finally reached the end of his patience. Or maybe that poem was simply so bad that he wanted to save poetry from my further attention. But either way, the comment backfired. Because he spent the next five years after my graduation reading and commenting on my fiction.

I credit Bob with helping me publish my first short story. I credit him with teaching me to write a query letter. I credit him with telling me, on a Cape Cod beach, as we watched our wives walk ahead of us, to be careful that my life not become only fodder for my work. But most of all, I think, I credit Bob with teaching me how to read.

I remember it happening this way: I was sitting in his poetry class, and we were working over Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “Sandpiper.” And, as Bob explicated that poem—or, rather, as he asked those questions designed to make us participants in the explication—something happened to me. Twenty-six years later, the best explanation I can provide is to say that, in a moment of epiphany and grace, the poem ceased being an academic exercise—suddenly had a critical relationship to my life. Bishop’s vision became my vision, and I understood things I had not previously understood. It is not hyperbole to say this was a moment of conversion. And, it is not a lie when I tell you I left that classroom lightheaded and, as I walked across that footbridge to Carlin, I felt myself becoming a different person.

Over the course of the following days, I began to see the reason I needed to be at Holy Cross. And, over the course of my time here as a student, I experienced similar moments in other classrooms.

My position as editor of HCM has allowed me to see that my experience was anything but unique. You cannot imagine how many conversations I have had with strangers that end with the sentence “John Wilson was my shepherd,” or “Tom Lawler really turned me around,” or “Clyde Pax cared about what happened to me.”

We had only enough space to publish seven of the essays that we received. But I’d encourage everyone who wrote a tribute to send it along to your own particular mentor, the teacher who changed your life.

Jack O'Connell


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