When I look back on my life I can see moments when a single person changed its trajectory completely. One of them was my English Literature teacher, Mr. Monaghan.
Before that fateful English class in my penultimate year of high school, I didn’t really know what I was going to do afterward. I had gone to a private school for grades 1-8, and reader, before you think “ooh, fancy”, let me tell you it was not that type of private school. It was a private Christian school, big on GOD and religion but not particularly focused on having a high-quality curriculum or teachers, where it was okay for teachers to turn a blind eye to mean-spirited cliques and favouritism. Shy, awkward and deemed uncool at the age of 6 in a class that didn’t change for 8 years, I had a miserable time that I’ve tried to forget.
Thankfully I switched over to our town’s public high school for the next stage in my education and while I was relieved to be a normal kid at a normal school, I had to work my ass off to keep up with the coursework – this is when the alarming gaps in my primary education showed clearly. I must not have had much confidence in my intelligence – I’ve saved some of my assignments from high school and there is one essay I wrote at 16 for a sociology class that still breaks my heart when I think of it. We were tasked to write about what we saw ourselves doing in the future. In short, I had imagined myself going to community college in a nearby town for a one-year administrative course and living in that same town in a small studio apartment while I worked full time as a secretary. Wow. Dream big, kid.
By the following year my ability to keep up with the rest of my classmates must have gotten easier because I stayed on the advanced track of courses, bound for university. The first course that counted toward my admissions average on my university applications was English Literature, taught by Mr. Monaghan. I had always liked my English courses, but now I loved it.
He strode into the room that first day, gave us all a long piercing look, and led us through a fiery semester. He seemed to take all of our measures with that look – those sitting in the back of the room, arms crossed in defiance and boredom, he left alone; those in the front rows, rapt with attention, he engaged fully. I sat near the front on the advice of a friend and to this day I am glad I did. To me he was equal parts John Keating (O Captain! My Captain!) from Dead Poets Society and Mr. Carpenter from the Emily trilogy. I was one of the lucky ones on his radar, and if I failed to finish the required reading, he left me sizzling with remorse. And it wasn’t enough to do the reading, you had to come prepared to discuss it with the class, and be articulate about it too. Unless you were sitting in the back of the room; by that time he had cheerily dubbed them “the behemoths” and ignored them unless they raised their hands.
I felt confident enough to try poetry for one of the assignments – something I’ve not done since, and while I’m sure it was supremely awful (I was going through a breakup at the time), he marked it with the same gravity he bestowed upon my essays.
I ended up with a final mark of 86%. With only five more courses to count towards that all-important admissions average, I had an amazing start which I maintained nicely over the next year, never quite reaching that peak again, but well enough to be accepted everywhere I’d applied. I took my degree in English Literature thanks to that class – the first time in my life I felt like I was actually good at something.
And now, reader, you are probably thinking, “Nice story, but what does this have to do with food or travel?”
Well, nothing. And everything.
My English Lit studies filled my head with Chaucer, Shakespeare, the Romantic period, the Gothic period, the Brontë sisters, Jane Austen, Dickens and scores more genres and books than I can even remember. Being away at university became my ticket to a much larger world than my previous small-town self could have possibly imagined – a world of new friends, new foods, new experiences, city life, travelling, and at the risk of sounding hokey, starting the process of finding out what I wanted out of life. And with all those books sloshing around in my head, it’s thrilling to be here in the UK, to see with my own eyes the places where so many stories have been set, so many authors have lived.
Thank you, Mr. Monaghan, for seeing something in me.