He looked up at the class from the wrinkled handout of John Updike’s “A&P” and asked us what we thought the narrator had really meant by quitting his job at the end of the story. His question lingered in the air, prodding us with what I’d come to recognize as the standard tone of sophomore English teachers, one that managed to simultaneously convey both resigned disappointment in our lack of class participation and a quiet sense of hopefulness that someone, anyone, had taken enough interest in the topic to actually pay attention. I glanced around the room, wondering how a story with such a simple yet powerful message could have passed over the heads of my classmates. I immediately found my answer in their faces, all of which were clearly bored, most of which were busy silently declaring their apathy by huddling over their desks in lame attempts to pretend they weren’t text messaging. I turned my focus back to Mr. Miller, whose face remained calm and unsubtly expectant.
I raised my hand and answered him, “He doesn’t want to be a sheep anymore.”
Before I met Mr. Miller, I didn’t have much faith in people. In my young and naive mind, people weren’t complex; when lines became blurred, most simply closed their eyes and grabbed onto the tail of the person in front of them. I’d always prided myself on being the type of person who could peg anyone down. A good twenty-minute conversation was all I felt I needed to thoroughly evaluate someone, to determine which category they’d fall under on the unwritten yet universally understood list of mundane personality types that I’d always just assumed existed. Then I strolled into my first day of sophomore English, and unknowingly signed up for the beginning of my slow but integral journey toward self-awareness.
I had never encountered anyone like him in the entirety of my semi-sheltered life; his whole demeanor completely baffled me. His unabashed refusal to wash his car, claiming that to do so was merely a shallow display of wealth and possession, astounded us all. He kept a custom-made stamp that proudly declared, “This is the most original paper I have ever read,” which he used to mark all of our essays with when he felt we hadn’t put the effort into our work that he knew we were capable of. His colorful choice of wardrobe, most memorably the lovely beginnings of an unraveled sweater he chose to flaunt on a bi-daily basis that resembled oatmeal in both color and texture, often left me stunned into silence, which is quite a rare feat. He preferred climbing mountains in Katmandu to skiing in the winter. He staunchly declared Valentine’s Day a nationwide corporate scam, and promoted a stuffed bear that a fawning student had gifted him to the task of erasing the daily lesson plan off of the white board. He was quirky, he was bold, he was impossible to dislike. Most importantly, he was so much more than all of that.
Mr. Miller used his own inimitable wealth of knowledge to make us aware of concepts that few of us would ever have been able to explore on our own. He pounced on every opportunity that presented itself to broaden our horizons beyond the sometimes narrow guidelines of our society, and his persistence in manifesting the immeasurable power of genuine self-knowledge and individuality was endless. He denounced the media for creating unrealistic and shallow standards for the youth of the nation, introducing us instead to inspirational literary characters who possessed intellect, honesty, and valor. While my miniature world cheered about conformity and social acceptance, Mr. Miller pointed out the flaws of my mentality and showed me what I would be capable of as soon as I grabbed a pen and scribbled my name outside of the dotted line.
It took me seven months, an open mind, and a John Updike story to finally understand Mr. Miller and the methods behind his so-called madness. He, unlike the many sheep that cluster together along the aisles of this world, was able to do what seems simple enough on paper but much less so in practice: he acted exactly as he was and went after the things he wanted; critics be damned. I walked out of class that day, my “A&P” handout curled up in the palm of my hand, with the realization that it was time for me to do the same.
Some say shoes don’t stretch and people don’t change, but I know better. I finally found my own way of breaking out of the pasture.