If I can read, I can thank a parent or two, but my teachers shaped my reading. With one bad teacher in twelve years of school and college professors uniformly inspiring, I was fortunate in my mentors.
Mrs. Anderson was a teacher in Clendenin, West Virginia for second graders. At the time, I am not sure the elementary school had a separate library, but Mrs. Anderson had beautiful copies of the Baum Wizard of Oz books, the first books whose illustrations influenced me as much as the text. They were beautifully bound and durable, which was useful because they had to be to survive a year in which I did not just read them, but used them as icons.
Mrs. Cobb took me for third grade and she decided that spending lunch reading alone, like the young Scrooge, might not be good for me. She purchased a Scholasticcollection of one-act plays, no more than three pages each, and let us practice them over lunch to perform after lunch. Up to that time, books had formed the background of my solitary play. With her help, it became communal.
I had one bad teacher in twelve years of public and Christian school. She did not move from her overhead if she could help it and the very sight of her zebra pantsuits could terrify me. For the only time in my life, I hated going to school, but she had one great virtue.
A beautiful girl got me interested in the Russian Revolution, and beauty inspired binge reading. But Mr. Wylie refused to let me merely read about the event as a collection of facts. He wanted me to defend a point of view and introduced the idea that not everyone agreed about important events. He disagreed with me about everything and this did me some good.
Mr. Larkin, a teacher and now a friend, pointed out that many books were attacking, sometimes subtly, Christian ideas. "Read the book," he would say, "but think about the worldview." Oddly, this was a new warning for me: it had never occurred to me that a book worth reading might be wicked.
Second, some books were bad for me, and I might not be able to read them (at least for a season). Some books stirred only prurient interest, but just as dangerous were books that wasted my time. They were unworthy of my time and attention, but might fill it. Other books made me more likely to condone all kinds of wickedness, so I could not read them.
David Bassinger was a wonder. He taught an introductory philosophy class and I knew nothing about philosophy, something my atheist friends still consider true. He was inspiring, infuriating, and restless.
God in Paradise may settle Zeno’s paradoxes for me, but I will not before that blessed time. With my teacher's help, I learned to enjoy proper uncertainty. Most teachers would have ended there, but he pushed me “commit myself so I could see.” Some tyrants teach cheap certainty, others easy skepticism. Bassinger taught the idea of deciding tentatively.
She would cross out pages of prose, telling me to avoid flowery Platonisms (how I labor still to do so!) and point me back to the text. Clever exegesis was not enough; she wanted rigorous, textual exegesis.
Until I met Phillip Johnson, book writing, and all writing for that matter, was mysterious. Johnson read even more fluidly than I, but he also produced words. He was born just at the right time for the Internet to give him the tools to email endlessly and he created emails that were better than any essay I have written.
Al Geier is the best Socratic teacher I have ever met. He read Plato with me, but not in order to “understand the text” merely, but to reorder our souls. Sunday night spent reading with him was ethical training, but not directly. Somehow he made the book seem as if, at any moment, we would all see something. And occasionally we did.