The Teacher Who Changed My Life

I had no idea what people who want to be writers do after high school. I actually had no idea how I survived high school. No one had talked to me about college. To say that I was ill prepared for the “real” world would have been a gross understatement. I wasn’t prepared to leave my bedroom to venture into the living room.

I have never balanced a checkbook. I couldn’t cook a chicken. I was, however, a first-degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do, so I had that going for me. For high school graduation, my parents bought me a 7-year-old Ford F-150 truck at its most basic: am only radio; two separate gas tanks neither of which ever showed full; no gas pedal, just a medal bracket where a pedal should be. Simply a steel can on wheels that gave me complete independence. I just had nowhere to go.

“You need to be practical. Get a degree in something you can always get a job in, like a medical field, like respiratory therapy,” my mother advised. So instead of moving to New Zealand, which was my true dream, I signed up at Front Range Community College in Westminster, Colorado.

I became utterly miserable, I was bulimic, I had suicidal thoughts, I smoked like a fiend, and I finally achieved a GPA of 1.0. … On the plus side, I was my ideal weight.

I finally reached a breaking point, and confronted my mother, saying I would either kill myself or get out of respiratory therapy. She readily agreed I should get out, but did ask what I planned to do. Excellent question. I planned to write. Since I could only think of limited things that pay you for writing, journalism it was. But first I had to get my GPA up.

I went to another community college, got better grades, then enrolled in Metropolitan State College of Denver (now Metropolitan University of Denver). My plan was to go to University of Colorado at Boulder, get out of my parents’ house, become a reporter, and write for a living. Only something happened on my way to Boulder. Or rather, someone.

His name was Mr. Greg Pearson. He was the head of the Journalism Department and a Marine. An ex-drill instructor over 6 feet tall, he would lecture and not spare colorful language, and while standing in the front of the class he would appear to grow larger, until he would fill out the entire room, his voice booming off the walls. Some of his favorite words were “goddamn it” and “tremendous.”

I think it was the second or third lesson, when Mr. Pearson was leaning across the table and yelling at a shy little freshman girl sitting next to me that I thought to myself, “I think I love him.” No, not like THAT. I thought that he was full of bluster and loudness, but if he didn’t care, he wouldn’t yell. Again, and again after that I was proved right.

In the journalism department we were “encouraged” to write for the Metropolitan, the weekly college newspaper. I submitted a rather long article about my family’s immigration. Mr. Pearson really liked it, and it set me apart from everyone else. The whole essay was published without a single word deleted, right in the center of the newspaper. It was the very first time I became a published writer.

“The most exiting thing you’ll ever see in print is your name,” Mr. Pearson once told us. He was not wrong.

Mr. Pearson served at the embassy in South Korea and fought in Vietnam, and he was a smoker. I remember smoking with him in the main journalism office, and listening to him talk about his flower garden. He said he started smoking during his tour in Vietnam, because getting leeches attached to you was one of the facts of life there, and the surest and fastest way to get them off was with the burning cigarette.

After Mr. Pearson got out of the military, he knocked on the doors (literally) of the New York Times, the best newspaper he could think of. “Hire me, I’ll do anything,” he told them. They did. He became one of the copy boys. And almost got fired for whistling in the “hallowed” halls.

Mr. Pearson worked for a newspaper in San Diego for many years and for the Rocky Mountain News (may it rest in peace). But one day, he looked around and saw the shitty quality of print reporters coming out journalism schools. Something had to be done, and he was just the man to do it. (With one phone call to his many contacts, Mr. Pearson could place any one of his students in an internship. I, myself, got an unpaid position compiling a calendar for Denver Parent, back when it was a newspaper before it became a magazine it is now.) I don’t know if Mr. Pearson created the Department of Journalism at Metro, but I do know that we had reporters and editors teaching us reporting and editing.

And Mr. Pearson became my demi-god. Once he caught me passing by his classroom, and called me in. “Elena,” he said, as I stood in front of his class next to him, staring at his students who were staring at me, “you escaped from the Soviet Union. I escaped from the nuns. You may go.”

Mr. Greg Pearson was given to the Catholic orphanage to be raised by the nuns, because his mom couldn’t raise him (I am not sure about the whole story, that is just how I remember it). And the stories he used to tell about the sisters were terrifying. I think he signed up for the Marines as quickly as he could only to escape from the nuns, and the Marines were much easier on him as far as discipline was concerned. Yeah, it wasn’t a soft and cuddly childhood.

We found out later that Mr. Pearson used to loan money to students for school, or books or even food, and if they couldn’t repay it, well, that was all right with him. He would give advice to his students in class, “I tell this to my kids, and I’m going to tell this to you: have a go-to-hell fund. This way, if an editor asks you to do something unethical, you have some money set aside, you tell him to go to hell. You can live a little on your savings.”

After I finished the classes, I wrote out the notes and underlined them in different colors. I wanted to keep a special little notebook, just of Mr. Pearson’s wisdom. I talked about him to my parents and my friends. I quoted him constantly.

But even demi-gods aren’t immortal. It was colorectal cancer that got Mr. Pearson, of all things. After he get sick, he stopped teaching. I wrote an article in the Metropolitan about him, how he spoiled my plans to go to Boulder, how I adored and admired him, how I wanted him to return. It was wishful thinking, but it was nice. He read it and he liked it. He died not too long after that, but at least he read it. He liked it.

If you were lucky, you had a teacher like Mr. Pearson in your life. Someone who changed the course of your entire life, who was bigger than life. I have written about a second hero of mine this week — here is my challenge. I am throwing down a gauntlet. I want to hear about your hero, your teacher. Was it your partner? Your child? Your parent? Or an actual teacher or coach? Even if you do not have a blog, go ahead and write me a comment down below, just a few lines. Let your heart fill with gratitude, and warm me and other readers with it, too.

Mr. Pearson would have liked that.

Writer and storyteller, immigrant, wife, mom, knitter, collector of jokes, lover of cheap, sweet wine.