I’m delighted today to be bringing you an exclusive guest post from Christopher Healy, author of our May Book of the Month, The Hero’s Guide to Storming the Castle. Thanks for stopping by, Chris!
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I was already an avid reader by the time I reached tenth grade. I was already in love with words. And I had already been telling people for years that I was going to be a writer someday. But it wasn’t until I lucky enough to have William Picchioni as my English teacher, that I really started to believe it. From the moment I met him on the first day of sophomore year, I knew I was going to like Mr. Picchioni (or Picch as the kids called him). He matched, in many ways, my exact mental archetype of a—capital E, capital P—English Professor. He sported a thick Walt Whitman beard (younger, Leaves of Grass-era Whitman; not crazy, old, Gandalf-bearded Whitman) and spoke with a strong-yet-gentle Robert Frost voice (not that I have any idea what Frost actually sounded like). And he brimmed over with more enthusiasm about literature than anyone I’d met before; he talked about books the way boys in backwards baseball caps talked about the Yankees.
Most importantly, Mr. Picchioni was just what I needed at that point in my life. I didn’t exactly have the easiest time in high school. What’s that? you say. I can’t believe it. Christopher Healy—the man who couldn’t make it through six sentences of this essay without throwing in a Lord of the Rings reference—had a tough time in high school? Alas, it’s true. But no matter how much I felt like an outsider during most of the school day, Picch provided me with safe havens, both in the forty joyful minutes of his English class and the countless hours I spent at afterschool meetings for Driftstone, the student literary magazine that he ran. Not to mention the wonderful New York City trips and museum visits he would chaperone for the Driftstone staff. Picch gave me a place where I belonged. Straight through ‘til graduation.
And he believed in me. I’d never had an English teacher before him—and very few since—who supported my natural inclinations toward, shall we say… less serious writing. Instead of composing a straight-up transcendentalist poem for one assignment, I concocted a comical spoof of Emily Dickinson—and Mr. Picchioni applauded it. When students were supposed to form teams and act out scenes from favorite books, Picch allowed me to go solo and perform The Hobbit’s “Riddles in the Dark” scene opposite a hand puppet Gollum. I even wrote my very first twisted fairy tale in his class: A vignette in which Prince Charming is turned off by Sleeping Beauty’s post-slumber morning breath.
I didn’t even realize at the time that I was being something of a rebel. Probably because I was such a hardline rule-following goody-two-shoes everywhere else. But in Picch’s class, I felt safe and free to be creative—free to test and challenge myself. At times, Mr. Picchioni seemed much more certain of my future as a professional writer someday than I ever was. Which is why, when, in college, I got tired of rejection letters and gave up on trying to write, I felt guilty, like I was betraying Picch and his faith in me. But I came back to it, of course (otherwise I probably wouldn’t have gotten the invitation to pen a guest post for this blog).
Today, I’m not even sure if Mr. Picchioni realizes that his faith in me has panned out. I haven’t been in touch with him for over a decade. I should probably remedy that. I hear there’s this thing called the Internet that makes it pretty easy to look people up. And in the meantime, I’m going to keep hoping that before my own kids’ academic careers are through, they get the chance to have a teacher as wonderfully suited to them as Picch was to me.