It was Halloween of my freshman year in high school. Our English teacher, Mr. Eugene Prandato, walked into the classroom carrying a carved pumpkin and a candle, and turned out all the lights. Whatever in the world could he be up to? I thought. He placed the Jack-O-Lantern on his desk, lit the candle and placed it in a holder, and removed a book from the desk drawer.
For the next forty minutes or so, Mr. Prandato read short stories to us from a collection of works by Edgar Allan Poe. I was mesmerized. Not only was our teacher an excellent sight reader, adding theatrical flourishes wherever he could, he was also a really good teacher. The first book I loaded into my Kindle device when I acquired it prior to my sixty fifth birthday was The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe. As I read and reread The Cask of Amontillado, The Raven, The Telltale Heart, and other horrific tales, I could hear Mr. Prandato’s rich baritone voice in my head. That’s the kind of impression he had made upon me and, no doubt, many of my classmates.
History always bored me to death, that is until my first year of college at Eastern Kentucky University. Professor Walter Odum taught Introduction to World Civilizations, one of the required courses that I dreaded. Upon entering his classroom that very first day back in 1964, I was struck by the sight of a series of scuff marks that formed a kind of dotted line across the front wall of the room, just beneath the blackboard. Each mark was almost exactly the same distance from the floor to its location above. I couldn’t imagine what had made them.
As soon as Professor Odum entered the room, the mystery was solved. With a motion that indicated some mild irritation, the professor loosened his tie and removed his sport jacket. With his back to the blackboard, he raised his right foot and planted it firmly against the wall, and began to tell the “never ending story” of world history. New smudge. As he unveiled the significance of Sargon of Mesopotamia and other historical figures, he would pause occasionally, walk about, and then return to a different location along the wall, lean back and raise his foot, making yet another mark. To this day, I have a fondness for history that I can trace back to this endearing professor, who taught history as if it were a soap opera.
Throughout my formal education, I had many teachers, some better than others, but those who made the greatest impression upon me were those who were passionate. They are the ones whose faces and voices I can still recall, over half a century later. They made a difference! Teaching is a noble profession, or at least it can be. The difference lies in the commitment of the individuals, and their ability to connect with their students—regardless of what it takes to do it, be it candles, pumpkins, or smudge marks on a wall.
Note: In 1993, upon attending the 25th reunion of my class at EKU, I had the great fortune to encounter my former instructor, Professor Odum. His hair was gray, and a little more stomach fell over his belt, but the engaging personality was still there. I told him how much he had meant to me back then, and how much I enjoyed history today. His smile was all the answer I needed. He retired at the end of that year.