Mark Angney, a high school English teacher, died of COVID-19 in January, 2021. I met Mark in the summer of 1974, when I was fifteen. Our lives overlapped for six weeks, the duration of Phillips Academy Andover’s summer session. I chose a literature class called “Growing Up In America.”
I had never met a teacher like Mark. He was…there’s no other word for it…cool. His blond hair grazed his shoulders. He walked to an inner beat, wearing khaki shorts and t-shirts. Even though he was excessively old (late 20s), he became an immediate focus of our adolescent fascination. As the summer progressed, we tracked his movements on campus. Sightings usually included his wife and young daughter, who became objects of intrigue as well. Mark wore his love for his family like a badge of honor.
We quickly learned that our teacher had an etched-in-stone list of absolute truths. Semicolons were “powerful.” Too many commas were “lazy.” A great work of literature was a “big mother miracle.” “However” and “although” were upstanding, while “y’know” was beneath human dignity (which became a class joke, since the forbidden word peppered our speech).
Mark continually gauged the gaps in our knowledge and whenever needed, he grabbed a stick of chalk and outlined on the blackboard a lesson in the subjunctive, the difference between major and minor characters, the correct spelling of onomatopoeia. He guided us through the basics of critical reading from A (“Try to remember the names of the characters.”) to Z (“Were you drawn into the story? Why? How?”). Mark taught with a charged focus, an intellectual agility, that matched the shooting-sparks style of adolescent thinking.
About two weeks into the summer, when Mark graded our initial batch of papers, we discovered more absolute truths. “Very” and “a lot” were crossed out with an annoyed red slash. Sentences should never, under any circumstance, begin with “And.” At our daily mid-morning break, a group of us huddled, counting our transgressions. Although amused at the astronomical total, I understood Mark’s message. When I wrote, everything mattered, even an And. I took in stride the many red marks on my paper, motivated to learn. However, I was surprised that Mark’s comments at the end covered a full page. He highlighted specific words, used grammar to enhance meaning. He encouraged me to trade a passel of tepid adjectives for one strong verb. He showed me how to adjust the structure of a sentence to reinforce its meaning. He demonstrated the interweaving of sound and sense. He introduced me to the difference between mapping out a conclusion, and raising an issue as an open question, inviting the reader to explore on their own. He viewed the writer as responsible for bringing the reader into the writing not only as an observer, but also as an active agent. Until that summer, I had applied these concepts to the literature assigned by my English teachers; I had never, not for a fleeting moment, thought of these ideas as relevant to my own writing.
One day, we read in class an excerpt from a book involving a father/son relationship, trauma and forgiveness. As always, a lively discussion followed. My eyes darted around the room, but I didn’t participate. I was deeply moved, filled with such profound sadness that my only goal was NOT to cry. I held myself icy still, trying to freeze my tears at their source, while ideas ricocheted around the room. When the class ended, I was the last to leave and as I walked past Mark, he spoke quietly. “The way you read — literature transports you. That’s good. You’ll want to hold onto that. Don’t let yourself grow out of it.” To my absolute horror, my tears broke the surface. Mark led me back into the classroom. I didn’t need to explain that crying in front of my peers was utterly, unacceptably, cringingly mortifying. He waited patiently while I regained my composure. For the rest of the day, I felt strangely steady. I had accidentally blown my cover, revealed my weird and embarrassing reaction to literature — and my teacher thought it was good. Of course, Mark was wrong…but I wondered if somehow he was right.
Mark’s vibrancy was such a palpable force that I’m struggling, decades later, to accept his death. If making a difference, one classroom at a time, constitutes a full life — then I can’t imagine a greater success story. I like to think that Mark’s heaven holds a library filled with big mother miracles, chairs soft as clouds, shelves soaring beyond the stars.
Mark, y’know, you were right. I never grew out of it. And thank you.
January 5, 1945 – January 20, 2021