Sometimes, in the murky depths of public education, a beacon shines so brightly that it eclipses the tedium of dispassionate learning.
For me, that beacon was a high school English teacher named William Yachymiak, otherwise known as “Yak.”
His reputation was notorious — my sister was his student many years before, and I was regaled with tales of torn-up term papers (by his hands, not hers), scathing remarks, and digestive problems induced by the stress of taking this man’s class.
Needless to say, the summer before entering my senior year was slightly unnerving. Yak was the AP English teacher, so there was no getting out of this one — I'd finished all of my other requirements, but had to take an English class. Finally, I decided this teacher would not get the best of me — I’d give him a run for his money, and perhaps even a little payback for my sister’s torment.
As luck would have it, the seating chart placed me directly in front of his desk.
Little did I know, on that first day of class, that ten months later I would walk out of his classroom with a passionate love for the written word — and complete confidence in my ability to express it.
But the road to that moment was one fraught with verbal sparring and witty retorts (from both sides). At one point he turned to me with a wistful look and said, “You know how the past sometimes comes back to haunt you?” I asked him if he was referring to my sister, and he replied with a weary “Yes.” The moment was delicious.
Over time, our exchange became one I looked forward to each day. Yak had an appreciation for sarcasm rarely found in a teacher, and the desire to call him on the slightest error kept me on my toes. His comebacks were stellar.
What I didn’t realize was that in the midst of all this, my writing was evolving into prose. His attention to detail was so infectious that I adopted it as my own — I wanted each sentence to be presented in its finest possible construction. Before accepting a paper from us, he would tell us to check it one last time, as there was certain to be a typo. There always was.
He handed us an essay entitled In Praise of the Humble Comma to emphasize the need for restraint in its use. I still agonize over every last one, as is known by any human being who has submitted a piece to me for editing.
Yak helped to make my writing so good, in fact, that he trumped himself in a moment I will remember forever.
I have only used Cliffs Notes twice in my life. The first time was when assigned The Grapes of Wrath, which was my definition of literary purgatory; but it paled in comparison to Crime and Punishment, which I simply could not bear to read. In desperation, I read the Cliffs Notes and relied on my verbal artistry to muddle through the impending essay.
Much to my horror, the day the essays were handed back, Yak gave us a scathing lecture about the necessity of reading the assigned material. He said he knew exactly who read and did not read the book, and that our grades reflected it. My stomach sunk.
As he walked around the room handing back our papers, I dreaded seeing the great big “D” at the top of the page. I was certain this would kill my GPA. At least he had the mercy to hand them out face-down.
Hesitantly, I picked up just a corner of the sheet, cringing when I saw the first shade of red. There, on the top of my paper, was a great big “A.”
I had fooled The Master? How was that possible? At that moment I experienced an inner shift — a voice that giddily confirmed my ability to turn a phrase. And it felt good.
From that point forward I allowed my words to flow naturally, knowing I had a strong grasp of the nuances that would make them sing. The comments on my papers were almost always complimentary, and the glow of achievement from pleasing such a taskmaster was its own reward.
Yak also had an incredible ability to move me in unexpected ways. At the end of the year we sat to take our AP English tests, and the classroom was decidedly empty. He was infuriated that some of the class opted out of the test after spending an entire school year preparing for it. For those who did show up, there was a letter awaiting each of us, praising our commitment and determination.
When my father died during my freshman year of college, I was deeply touched to see Yak walk through the door of the funeral home. In unforgettable fashion, he came over and whispered to me: “Don’t hesitate to call on me if you need anything. You know, pencils, paper clips…” I burst into much needed laughter.
I still have the Crime and Punishment essay. It is a poignant reminder of where the road began, and how one person can have such an impact on the life of an individual.
Wherever you are, William Yachymiak, I thank you from the bottom of my heart to the tip of my pen. I also offer an apology for duping you, but had it not been for that glorious moment, I wonder where the road would have taken me.
But I am left with a question:
Why didn’t you ever assign Atlas Shrugged? I definitely would have read that one.
Jennifer Iannolo is the editor of the Atlasphere and the publisher of Gastronomic Meditations, an online magazine celebrating the sensual pleasures of food. In her free time she is a counselor for a comma rehabilitation program.