Because I often visit middle schools as a writer of novels for young adults, I get asked questions. This is a great privilege. A lot are very interesting, and some recur: “How long did it take you to write the book we read?” “Is this story about you?” “Where did you get the idea?” I do my best to answer in ways that are both candid and interesting — but one question that kept coming up had me stumped, for a while. It was, “How did you get started writing?”
I had to think about that. I’d been a pretty good reader in elementary school, and in high school I got very busy on the school newspaper; but in between those times, something happened. What was it?
Then I remembered. It was Mr. Behr’s class.
This came in the last phase of the loneliest, unsurest time in my life. I’d been a socially clueless middle schooler, scrawny and awkward in every way, and I annoyed people. I had a knack for drawing negative attention; it was the only kind I knew how to get. My town had a junior and a senior high school, grades 7-9 and then 10-12, and after my horrific first year in that jungle of a junior high, my parents sent me to a private boys’ day school, an hour’s bus ride away. And there began my darkest time.
At that school the bullying was professional-grade. We wore jackets and ties, the jocks and the entitled kids ruled, and there were lots of rules but no supervision — and the library was the safest refuge for an off-putting misfit. I hadn’t found anything like a talent or passion to help me feel okay about myself, and no doubt that uncertainty made me the more magnetic a target. I don’t mean to be dramatic, this is just how it was — as it is for countless adolescents today who are seen, and often see themselves, as different and ill-fitting. These are the ones who, when the popular kids say “You’re a loser,” have so far found no reason to disagree.
Then I had Mr. Behr for ninth-grade English. Tom Behr was a young teacher then, with a commanding voice and a strong presence, and in his class he tolerated none of the casual cruelty that elsewhere permeated our school lives. At the same time he was a progressive teacher, especially for the mid-1960s. Rather than telling us the theme of a novel we were reading, he'd say, “You read the chapter. What do you think?”
I thought a lot. I was a reader, and in that lonely time books were my best friends. And because Mr. Behr tolerated no cruelty or putdowns, slowly, gradually I began to raise my hand. When I said what I thought, tentatively at first, I think some other guys were surprised to find that I wasn’t, it turned out, a total idiot. Maybe I was surprised too. As the year went on, as we worked through novels like William Saroyan’s The Human Comedy, I spoke up more and more — and at home, in secret, I began to write.
In my room at night, with my rolltop desk open and the door closed, stories and poems began pouring out of me onto paper. I was even working on a play. I have no idea what those pieces were about — I didn’t save them and never showed them to anyone, including Mr. Behr, who didn’t know to encourage me to write. Instead he created a setting, a forum, where I began to discover that I might, maybe, just possibly, have something to say.
And that, I realized, thinking back on it long afterward, was what turned the key.
Last spring, 45 years later, I was teaching fiction writing to talented high schoolers at the New England Young Writers Conference, a wonderful long-weekend residence at Middlebury College’s fabled Bread Loaf campus — and I met a teacher from that old private school. I told her my story. A week or so later, having asked around, she found and sent me Mr. Behr’s email address. I emailed, and told him this story.
He wrote back. I discovered that E. Thomas Behr, retired from a fine career in teaching, is now a management consultant for multinationals and the author (so far) of two books: The Tao of Sales (1997) and Blood Brothers (2011). The latter, a novel, unfolds on the Mediterranean Sea and in the Sahara Desert during, as Tom describes it, “America's first foray into nation-building in the Islamic world: the 1805 attempt to put a pro-American ruler on the throne of Tripoli.”
He graciously received my personal tale. “Whatever I have given students over the years are simply gifts I’m returning — with pleasure,” he emailed back. “My calling, then and now, is to point out doors where people see only walls, give them a key, and help them find the courage to step into the world on the other side.”
So that's the story. And these days I tell it, over and over, to audiences in which many middle schoolers are themselves in a dark-edged time of loneliness and search. I don’t know if it helps them, but I think the teachers like it. And I often wonder, sharing my experience in school classrooms, auditoriums, gyms and libraries, if there's a Mr. Behr there, too.
I really hope so.