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What I Didn’t Know About Mr. Heaps

Susan Orlean

What I didn’t know about Mr. Heaps, my eleventh-grade English teacher, who was my favorite teacher ever:

1. His first name. I’m guessing it was John, or James, or maybe Robert, or one of those names that most adults had in the seventies, but it didn’t even matter: To me, his first name was, and will forever be, “Mr.” Even now, when I reminisce with friends I grew up with, we still refer to our teachers as “Mr.” or “Mrs.” or “Miss” (my education predated “Ms.”). We are fully realized adults, and probably much older than our teachers were then, but the minute we talk about our teachers, we are placed into a slingshot and flung back in time, returning instantly to the role of teenaged students, reverential and a little timid, and certainly not cheeky enough to call our teachers by their first names. If I somehow came to know one of their names, I still wouldn’t utter it, not even now. My worship of Mr. Heaps was enlarged by the fact that I didn’t know his first name. It added to his unfathomable charisma. I find it disturbing that my son’s school allows—encourages—students to call their teachers by their first names. Where’s the mystery in that? Can you be in awe of “Dan” or “Tim” the way I was of “Mr. Heaps”?

2. His age. Was he in his thirties? Sixties? Was he one hundred years old? Twenty-eight? NO IDEA. I did know he was a grown-up. (In truth, I had no perception whatsoever of the age of any of my teachers. They were simply teacher-aged.)  Of course, when you’re sixteen, anyone over seventeen seems like a grown-up. On the other hand, Mr. Heaps seemed very, very old, in the sense that he had a job, and was wise, and knew a lot, and wore a tie, and could talk about literature. Recently, I learned that one of my high-school art teachers, Mr. Hoffman, had been in his late twenties when I was in his class. The ink on his teaching certificate was probably still damp. Could he really have been so young? Granted, Mr. Hoffman was hipper than a lot of the other teachers, including my beloved-but-not-hip Mr. Heaps, but it would have never occurred to me that he might be just a little older than we were. As much as I was unable to figure out how old my teachers were, I also couldn’t picture them aging. In my mind they were eternally suspended in that ageless, no-age, teacher-aged vector, never graying or becoming bent or infirm. Nothing is as fierce as the attachment we have to our teachers, and part of that fierceness requires that they stay exactly as we knew them best, holding court in front of the classroom, mysterious and powerful, forever.

3. His life, outside of school. I grew up in a leafy, leisurely suburb of Cleveland called Shaker Heights. The pride of Shaker Heights was its public school system. It was often ranked the best in the nation. Many teachers aspired to live in Shaker Heights so their children could take advantage of its schools, so I did know a few teachers as neighbors or as the parents of kids in school with me. But those were the exceptions. Mostly, I had trouble imagining that my teachers had lives beyond the classroom. I didn’t know—nor did I care to know—if Mr. Heaps was married, or had children, or where he lived, or what he did besides lead our mid-morning eleventh-grade English class and introduce us to books that seemed magical. Many years after I graduated, I was home visiting my parents and we went to see a play. During intermission, I bumped into Mr. Heaps. It was as disorienting as being in a foreign country and, say, running into your dentist: the change of context was shocking. After all, I had never, ever, seen him off school property. (In what remains one of my prouder moments, he told me, as I stood there dumbstruck, that he had read one of my books and was proud of me, praise that meant more to me than a good review in the New York Times. After all, it was Mr. Heaps.)

4. If he appreciated the magnetic hold he had on us silly, pimply, pliable teens. Mr. Heaps treated us like scholars, like people mature enough to appreciate serious literature, when the rest of the world still saw us as little kids who couldn’t be trusted to make our beds properly. He dared to introduce us to Faulkner and Fitzgerald and Hemingway and the like, confident that we could appreciate them even at our age. He spoke deeply about these books, and assumed we could meet him at that depth. Maybe we gasped for air a bit, but we dove in after him. I don’t remember him being an especially impassioned or vivid orator; what he imparted more was a kind of intellectual intimacy, a feeling that we were all talking together, as equals, about Quentin Compson or Jay Gatsby, and it was thrilling to be taken seriously. Mr. Heaps made reading and writing and loving books seem important, and thereby made us feel important for being able to appreciate that. He once wrote a comment on a paper of mine that changed my life. I no longer remember the subject of the paper, or his exact words, but in essence he said that I had the makings of a real writer. I had been dreaming of being a writer since I was able to read, but it seemed like an impossible reach, like aspiring to be an Olympic skier or an astronaut. It was the first time someone had recognized that yearning in me and encouraged it. Coming from him, the comment felt like an anointment. No, no, it felt like a proclamation that I needed to uphold. If he thought I had the makings of a real writer, then a real writer I would be.

5. What became of him. I left Ohio for college, and then left college for the West Coast, and then left the West Coast for the East Coast, and then, whenever I went back to Ohio, I spent all of my limited time there with my parents and cousins and that was it. I never was one of those people who dropped by the high school to say hi to my old teachers. I just didn’t have time on those parent-centric visits, and to be honest, I think I was always a little afraid of the shrinkage that seems inevitable when you visit your past. Oh, I remember the school seeming so much bigger. Oh, I remember this teacher and that teacher seeming so much more commanding. I preferred my past preserved in amber, perfect and proportionate to my memories. I do know that Mr. Heaps kept teaching long after my time. Whatever else his life consisted of, his commitment to teaching was obviously constant, steady, and enduring. I realize now that if I had sought him out in those later years, he wouldn’t have seemed smaller or less potent. His human form and affect, no matter what they really were, would have never diminished the largeness of his place in my life. He was a giant. He made us feel like we could be giants, too. I hope he knew that.

Shape of the state of Ohio with a star on the top right and text Cleveland

Copyright © 2023 by Susan Orlean

SUSAN ORLEAN is a journalist and bestselling author of many books, including The Orchid Thief and The Library Book. She has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1992, and has also contributed articles to many other magazines including Vogue, Rolling Stone, Esquire, and Outside. In 2021, Orlean wrote for the Emmy-nominated  HBO comedy series How To with John Wilson, and she is adapting The Library Book for television.

What I Didn't Know About Mr. Heaps By Susan Orlean chapbook cover. Gray vector image of a man with a tie