When I pass away, nowhere in my obituary will it say “great student”. It wasn’t that I couldn’t put the work in — no, most often it’s that I just wouldn’t put the work in. I’d amble from one class to the next, one year to the next, doing just enough to get by, my ambition and motivation always just a few strides behind my potential.
January of 1998 marked the start of my last semester at West High. Doing “just enough” for the previous three-plus years meant I could surf into graduation, enjoying the spoils of senioritis along the way. I was co-captain of our school hockey team and 95% of my focus and energy was on upcoming games and practices, the school day serving as little more than a social gathering and a place to eat lunch.
Then I stepped foot inside Joe Sullivan’s Creative Writing classroom.
From day one, his class was different. Bolstered by decades of experience and untethered by first-day jitters, he bounced around the room with a refreshing energy. While some teachers seem about as thrilled to be there as their students, Mr Sullivan exploded with the excitement of an uncaged rabbit.
Creative Writing sounded daunting, particularly to someone who had done precious little of it the prior 12 years, but he made it simple. Each week we were to write a paper on a predefined topic of his choice. It was due on Monday, and if you didn’t submit it on time, you got an F on the paper. No extensions. No late work. One missed paper meant got you a C for the semester, two meant summer school. And not that simply turning in the paper netted you an A — he was a very difficult grader. He taught every senior in our 2000-student school, and yet he gave so few A‘s that twice a year he’d take his students who received one out to breakfast as a reward. There were rarely more than a dozen attendees.
His classes were an event. He had no other homework. No handouts, no busy work, no structure. We’d shuffle into class, find a desk, and for 45 minutes, we’d listen. We’d listen to stories about his wife and kids, or about a little league team he’d coached. We’d listen to him talk about how erasing the blackboard was his most important job, because if a portion of a letter was left behind, the “squiggle” would be distracting to the students. After weekend hockey games, he’d chastise me for an elbowing penalty I got, and I’d argue that I got him cleanly with my shoulder. He was funny and sincere, honest and intelligent — a master storyteller. His 45 minutes were the shortest of my day.
He’d inject lessons into his stories the same way a mother blends carrots into a dessert. In between hilarious stories of college football road trips I’d come to understand the importance of a story’s opening sentence. While he went on and on about Dorothy Parker, the 20th century writer and poet, we’d come away understanding how to keep our writing short and succinct. And while we once spent an entire class weighing the risks of jumping off a local trestle into the Piscataquog River, I discovered how much he abhorred cliches.
I worked hard on my first story and turned it in with trepidation. A day later, I got it back covered in red pen. My heart sank. But as I read, I realized that he included as many words of praise as he did corrections. Like blended carrots, his red pen markings were the perfect mix of sweet and sour, of correction and motivation.
It got better from there. “You are a WRITER!” he scrawled in red at the bottom of my next paper. My confidence soared. “The teachers in the break room LOVED this one,” he wrote on another. Late in the semester he read my paper, in which we were supposed to write in a humorous tone, aloud to the entire class. I sat in my back-corner seat, red and embarrassed and completely exposed among my classmates, yet internally I beamed that he thought enough of my words to read them out loud. Each week I craved his feedback and devoured his margin commentary.
I spent every day for five months listening to hilarious stories of West Manchester and Boston College football and driver’s ed and how to properly erase a blackboard, and along the way a side of me had been awoken that I wasn’t aware had been asleep. I became a WRITER. He saw something in me that I didn’t have the courage to see, and it changed how I perceived myself, even to this day. A decade before Jack Falla taught me that it was OK to write about my hockey passion, Joe Sullivan taught me it was OK to write, and perhaps more importantly, he gave me the confidence to share what I wrote with others. As similar as Jack and Joe were, it’s only appropriate that they’re perhaps the two people most responsible for this website existing today.
I found out about Joe’s death the same way I found out about Jack’s – in an email. It’s a fitting jab to a man who much preferred an old-fashioned hand-written letter to a newfangled electronic mail message, a final nod to the type of person they just don’t seem to make anymore using a means of communication that’s now the cultural norm.
“Did you hear about Joe Sullivan?“, the email from my wife said. The words ricocheted through my body. I knew right away and responded with a four-letter word. The man taught me everything I know about writing, and yet my gut instinct to the news of his passing was the f-word. I’d like to think he’d give me credit for an attention-grabbing opening sentence.
A week before my high school graduation, a handful of us joined him for breakfast at Belmont Hall. We talked about Nomar and the Red Sox and our college plans. Before we all left for school, he gave each of us a pencil and a notepad, as symbolic as it was functional. “Keep writing,” it said on the cover.
I have. And because of you, Mr Sullivan, I always will.