Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Friday, January 27, 2012

Mr. Tweed

In memory of my high school English teacher, Robert Tweed, 1926–2012

Mr. Tweed and me

When I walked into Robert Tweed’s senior English class for the first time in 1968, I was one petrified 16-year-old. This tall, handsome man, not just a regular English teacher but head of the department, with his oh-so-proper English-sounding name—what could be more intimidating to a working class girl? But the moment Mr. Tweed spoke, his soft, gentle voice made me feel that everything would be okay.

He gave our class an exposure to a wide variety of films, plays, and great literature, and led fascinating discussions that led us to appreciate them on a much more mature and even sophisticated level. He assigned one major term paper on our own choice of theme, based on five novels we chose from a recommended list. I chose the topic “War,” and read All Quiet on the Western Front, The Red Badge of Courage, A Farewell to Arms, The Bridge over the River Kwai, and Catch-22. Yes, Catch-22—Mr. Tweed encouraged us to read controversial books, didn’t set them apart from more traditional literature, and not only expected us to discuss them intelligently, but led by example. It was exciting to realize that a man who dressed, spoke, and carried himself so formally was open to discussing such a wide spectrum of ideas and equally varied ways of expressing them. His class freed me up to start questioning some of my own long-held ideas and beliefs, and enlarged my view of the world and my place in it.

We also spent a lot of time on grammar, including diagramming wondrously intricate sentences. I loved this, and the ever-increasing complexity made the diagramming more challenging and fun for me. Mr. Tweed patiently listened to a lot of complaints about sentence diagramming, but in the end defended it not only as an important way of ensuring that we truly grasped the fundamentals of grammar but also as a valuable exercise in logic. He had a way of making me feel proud to be a geek.

No one in my family, and none of our family friends, had gone to college. Many students’ parents encouraged them to go to college even if they hadn't gone themselves, but mine were very mistrustful of what my dad thought was nothing more than a breeding ground for hippies. I had no clue what college even was. But Mr. Tweed was not just adamant that I should go—it was as if he could not even conceive of my not going. He was one of a group of teachers who came to my house unannounced to persuade my parents to send me to college, and was one of the ones responsible for my receiving a scholarship to the University of Illinois. He also encouraged me to take a test that placed me in a special freshman rhetoric class that proved to be one of the most memorable and important college classes I took, and obtained the reading list so I could prepare myself. Imagine having a teacher who took that much interest in his students! At a very fundamental level, I owe everything I’ve achieved in my life to Robert Tweed.

I can’t remember any teacher revealing as much about his personal life as Mr. Tweed did, yet he was also one of the most modest and unassuming teachers I’ve ever had, and the most profoundly sincere. He told us that he’d grown up on a farm and for a while when he was a child, his family was on welfare. I drew from this my first inklings that I could dream of and make for myself an entirely different kind of life from that I’d always known. What an empowering thought! I don’t remember him mentioning birds specifically in his classes, but the skills he gave me and, more importantly, the confidence I started to feel under his encouragement provided the foundation for my career as a writer and public speaker.

Mr. Tweed was a bachelor, and the year we had him was the year he started dating his wife Rosemary. One of the other students happened to see them on a date, and when she mentioned it in class, he blushed adorably. When Russ and I were in college, we visited West Leyden once after Mr. Tweed had married, and he invited us to dinner to meet “my Rosie.” He was so proud to introduce us to her! I’d not grown up knowing that men outside of those in movies could be so deeply in love. Their relationship was lovely to see.

It’s not until we are decades removed from high school that we can appreciate how much our teachers influence our futures, for better and for worse. I was lucky enough to comprehend what Robert Tweed gave me in time to thank him. And I was doubly blessed, because in the past decade, the man who was one of my most inspirational teachers also became one of my most beloved and treasured friends. I visited him a handful of times, and Russ and I attended his 80th birthday party in La Crosse. We lived hundreds of miles apart, but he and I had many lovely telephone conversations discussing everything from music and literature to politics, religion, and fundamental issues of right and wrong. In the past couple of years, his health began to fail, but his mind was as quick-witted and fully engaged as ever.

How I will miss this brilliant and gentle man who taught me English, and gave me the world.