One of the two individuals which were in the dedication of Rivers End was Mark Hershnik.
No teacher I had prepared me for my future as Mark Hershnik. I spent two years in his English classes at Robert H. Brown Middle School in Madison. It was a fairly undistinguished school in a town full of strong schools. A place were bullying and family history played as much of a role in a student's standing as their grades, most of my memories of that school aren't pleasant. But each day in English, we got a dose of grammar and literature which was far ahead of the typical middle school level, forcing us to be better readers and writers. Sometimes we got a belly laugh, like the time Mr. Hershnik told the story of training a parrot he was pet sitting to say "bullshit". Sometimes you got a lesson in morality, but never in a preachy or forced way; these lessons were by the example in literature we read.
The homework, quizzes and tests were hard. I remember pulling a 100 on a test about prepositions and how the test was worded to actually find what words were acting as prepositions, not just words that "are prepositions". Grammar geeks unite. I remember the group projects were challenging. We had one group project on "A Man for All Seasons" where we ended up re-enacting a scene from the movie. Then there were the recitations. Maybe all this doesn't sound so exciting, but the magic in his teaching is that it was never boring. Other than the music classes, it was the most engaging middle school class I took. I would actually look forward to it. You'd never knew what demeanor he would have from class to class. He could be a total goof ball, attracting the attention of the other teachers (who could hear him easily do to the wonderful "open floor plan" at Brown - it was a horribly designed building). He could be dead serious and intimidating. It could change in the spur of the moment, like it did the time he overheard a student make a racially insensitive comment in the middle of class one day.
Mr. Hershnik wanted to teach. He wanted to be there. I don't think a lot of people, students or teachers, wanted to be in that building when I was there. I'd read that he'd given up the chance for a high-paying financial career after falling in love with teaching while substituting during college. And he didn't just want to be there, he also wanted to make the students better. The high school in Madison also had some great English teachers when I was there. I think there job was made a bit easier with the students who had gone through Mr. Hershnik's classes. I'd seen Mr. Hershnik in the high school once after I'd started writing for the local weekly newspaper in town and he'd asked me to come by and speak to his class about it. I was pretty surprised as the local paper really wasn't that big of a deal, but I do remember him having a former student of his who wrote for the television show "The Wonder Years" come in and hand out copies of scripts from the episode that would be on that night. He was proud of his former students' accomplishments. He had art work of former students up in his classroom, including the body-length sketchy of a preppy alligator that was up on his wall every year. It described him perfectly.
I remember the last time I ever saw Mr. Hershnik at a grocery store in Madison. His back was turned to me, I was in a rush, so I didn't say hello. This had to be about 10 years after I graduated high school and another 4 since I was in his class. Much like Brian Caldwell (another major influence on my writing, who I last saw at a grocery store just down the road from my house) I regret not having one last talk with him. The similarities between the final "encounter" I had with two of my biggest influences in writing is eerie. Lesson learned - engage people you see, because you never know when and if you will get a chance to do it again.
In 2008, after an unreported absence, Mark Hershnik was found dead in his house due to natural causes. Anyone who'd gone through the public schools in Madison was shocked. No one would picture such an energetic and charismatic educator passing away so young. As I was writing this, many of my incidental memories of Mr. Hershnik as a teacher popped into my mind. I don't think I would have completed "Rivers End" without some of the things I learned over those two years of middle school English, sentence structure, variation - telling a story. I wrote a descriptive piece in his class once about attending my first baseball game, how the green of the field was blinding after being in the dark hallways of the old Yankee Stadium working my way up ramps to the seats. I remember him circling it in red three times and writing underneath it "More Like This !!!"
Writing this also makes me miss him.
A couple of great tributes I found to Mr. Hershnik on the web:
From the Daily Campus at UConn
Knights of Columbus
Find A Grave