For all the tributes I share on FB, most are for celebrated or noteworthy people in public life, whether an actor of yesteryear or an actor gone too soon or a beloved astronaut, etc. These are people who made an impact on my life one way or another…whether nostalgic memories or of historic importance.
This tribute is for a gentleman who is noteworthy to thousands of students he taught, of which I was one and is worthy of a blog entry dedicated in his memory. He made an impact on my life in ways he probably wasn’t aware of and I regret to this day, now that it’s too late, that I never thanked him for. And nor did I apologize for behavior I am not proud of looking back on. In fact, I have not been proud of myself for a long time now and which I have known for years I should have asked forgiveness.
J. Allan Pryor’s obituary notes him as a teacher first…”teacher, advisor, friend, beloved uncle and brother…” Mr. Pryor taught seminar style around a large table (or two pushed together?) in a room off the Library.
Believe it or not, I was a very shy insecure HS Student, especially after returning Junior year having missed the latter 2/3rd of Sophomore year to first hellish Spinal Surgery. I was accepted into Junior’s Advanced English Class only after my 10th Grade Teacher/home tutor – the lovely Mrs. Levy who made delicious brownies – “recommended” me to the teacher. For all of Junior Year I never felt as though I belonged (another story for another time). So when it came time to apply for AP English, I was nervous but knew at least I would have to go through the same process…essay writing and an “interview” (I think though can’t exactly remember). And there were fewer slots available. Not everyone from our 11th Grade class would move on. My only hang up was that I knew Mrs. Levy and Mr. Pryor were close colleagues. I truly wanted to be accepted on my merit. Long story a bit shorter, I was accepted into AP English …a class of Classics and European Readings mostly, taught College style. Several of my friends, girls of course as I had barely talked to the boys since 7th grade, were in the class, too, so I felt “safe” as long as I would sit next to them. Didn’t always work out that way naturally.
Senior Year had barely started when I intuitively knew Mr. Pryor liked me …admired me. I was a wee one when I first detected these types of reactions from people. This kind of – what seemed to me – unearned admiration was not welcomed. I’ve always wanted to be liked for my intelligence, my caring, my humor (as lame as it is sometimes), my writing, and my outreach.
Now comes the hard part …I took advantage of Mr. Pryor’s good will. I’d turn in papers late several times. And I’d never be penalized (not that I can remember which is why I’ve always felt guilty). In all the 30+ years since, I was and am embarrassed that I never apologized. Had looked forward to him coming to our HS Reunion in Oct. 2015 thinking I’d finally do what was right. Sadly, Mr. Pryor wasn’t feeling well enough that day to come in the evening and sent his regrets. We always think there will be another opportunity to say what we know needs to be said. One would think I finally learned the painful truth the last time I spoke to my Dad on the day he died, leaving the most important statement unspoken. There is no excuse for not picking up the phone save sheer cowardice and shame.
With the long overdue apology comes appreciation that has grown with each passing decade…never more so than when I watch Jeopardy and Franz Kafka/The Metamorphosis is favorite question to clues every few months. As much as I am happy I know the question, I still cringe as that story has haunted me (the reason why is for another time) from our reading of it for an overnight assignment. And possibly one of the best Pop Quizzes ever was Mr. Pryor having us “draw” main character Gregor after he wakes up. A teacher would certainly know immediately if any student had not done the homework. All the other works we read come to mind during countless Jeopardy clues, too!
There were many more memorable plays and books we read Senior year. And though I never knew why (another reason I should have made contact), Mr. Pryor inexplicably chose me to read one of the most famous soliloquies in all of literature…Hamlet’s “To be or not to be…” Me of the shrill squeaky voice who practically never raised her short hand to answer a question. There were a few guys in our class with wonderfully expressive voices. And not to be sexist, I can think of a couple of girls who would have been great, too. I can’t imagine what my classmates thought. I knew I was horrified and practiced all that winter weekend, the cadence, the pronunciations, the inflections… What was he thinking? And now all these years later, I’m a public speaker. Can’t say that was precisely the beginning but perhaps Mr. Pryor saw something inside of me I was too insecure to at the time. Isn’t that what a great teacher is…one who sees what a student can’t see of oneself? I wish I knew if he knew what I’ve been doing with my presentations.
Another lasting lesson I learned the hard way was how to read peers’ work and offer comments. Simple “this is good writing” notes would not suffice. We were graded in part on our “critical review” of each other’s assignments. Yea, that was fun – Not! Unsurprisingly, I nearly always picked my friends’ papers – the girls! Until one day myself and another student were directed to the cafeteria to read one another’s papers (I think on Zorba the Greek – nearly 50 year old brain cells have been lost) since we had both turned in our assignments late and had not been in the binder left in the Library for classmates’ comments. Yep, the other student was one of the guys…one of the good guys, one of the cute guys. I enjoyed what ever book we had read and though I didn’t think my paper was all that, I did guess it was likely better than the one I was tasked to read. How could I write comments on a paper that wasn’t very good? And of a cute guy sitting across the table from me…one I barely said two words to ever. As I wrote above, he was one of the good guys and at one point he piped up, admitting his paper wasn’t great and I shouldn’t feel bad for being “critical” — a gallant gent letting me off another mortifying hook.
Madame Bovary proved to be a revelatory read as I actually had comments in response to Mr. Pryor’s questions – only as usual I’d whisper them to whichever friend I was sitting next to. This one friend this one time I caught began to yawn and stretch her hands as Mr. Pryor called my name. Seemed that M was pointing down at me…curse of being much shorter than everyone else. No one would ever admit how many times this had occurred previously but I then learned not to whisper anymore!
Back in the day, early in the school term, Seniors were assigned to write an autobiographical essay. I think (who knows – my timeline may be mixed up) this was to help us with our college essays. As usual, I procrastinated and struggled with what to write. There was the obvious topic but I tried to stray as much as possible. I wrote first of my Grandparents and eventually got around to the obvious. I was truthful no doubt about the pain, but I also ended the paper on an optimistic tone as I do believe that is what keeps me going. And I actually handed that paper in on time! I was, however, absent when graded papers were returned. Dear Mr. Pryor had suggested that classmates ask me to read it. Those assigned personal essays had not been left in the library binder for comments. I didn’t know until the next day when I sat down and another classmate – and a guy even — asked me to read my paper. I was very confused till somebody explained later. Oh the embarrassment once again…what did my classmates think…that I was the teacher’s pet? And this could be why I began to “test” Mr. Pryor’s good will…I wanted him to get frustrated with me. Probably didn’t help either that Senioritis set in early after being accepted to college in December. Yet I never succeeded because J. Allan Pryor was a generous soul…one I didn’t fully appreciate then.
Besides the serious topics of AP English, we also had fun. Mr. Pryor gave our class permission to celebrate Birthdays! My 17th Birthday came in October on a Monday and I was extremely grumpy that morning because no one had wished me a HB yet. Second period I came into our classroom and actually slammed my books on the table, a rare display for me at the time. Truthfully, not sure anyone noticed. Wasn’t long, though, before Sarah, Lisa and others brought out the baked Birthday goodies, singing along. Needless to say, I was delighted even if embarrassed while a year long tradition was started. Somehow it was always us girls who brought the snacks and desserts until Mr. Pryor shamed the guys. Last day of Senior Year, the guys went all out with fancy foods (with some help from Moms and Grandmothers), drink, and a coffee urn. What a feast we had to end a terrific year with each other.
AP English with Mr. Pryor was a highlight of my Senior Year at BHHS even as I didn’t fully embrace it till too late. The lessons I learned those months from a passionate teacher whether from literature or of life are timeless. I can only hope hundreds of other students thanked him enough so he knew what a great force he was at Byram Hills. And somehow I hope the indirect messages sent to him with the apology he was due from me were received. Even if they were, the message of thanks were not, save now here …where I believe he can still see what is being written, I pray.
Mr. Pryor, thank you for being one of BH’s beloved Teachers …you had quirks for sure and a wicked sense of humor, with a great intellect and a gentleness that could help the hardest to reach students. Don’t worry, I won’t include here that last question I asked you in the main office on final day of Senior Year when some had arranged a Hawaiian theme complete with plastic leis. I think I finally did shock him with my tongue in cheek potty mouth. Thank you for being one of my biggest fans when I didn’t deserve it. And thank you for pushing me out of my comfort zones (several times!). You were a teacher in the best sense, teacher and advisor. My condolences to your loving family and friends and to all the students who made the extra efforts to exchange correspondence with you these many years. You were a treasure here on earth. Enjoy reunions with all the former BH teachers gone …some long ago, others more recently. Please give my regards to Mrs. Levy if possible as I owe her an apology as well. Enjoy all the spiritual reunions with loved ones and happy encounters with any you may wish to discuss why this or that with!
“I was happy, I knew that. While experiencing happiness, we have difficulty in being conscious of it. Only when the happiness is past and we look back on it do we suddenly realize – sometimes with astonishment – how happy we had been.”
Nikos Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek