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  • Julie Cali

A Letter to My High School AP English Teacher


To My Dearest Teacher and Friend Mr. Perez,


I first met you twenty-five years ago, when I was a youthful eager seventeen-year-old. I walked into AP English to find you, a man small in stature, with deep blue eyes, and a salt and pepper beard, commanding the room. You read the first line from One Hundred Years of Solitude, where while facing the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía remembered that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. Your tone and discourse dissecting Magical Realism sent shivers up my spine, as if I knew that this moment had ignited a spark of creativity that would mold my future path.


That first day of class, we turned in our summer projects, and even though some students had failed to do them by the due date, you gave them extra time to finish. One such student submitted his two weeks later and still received an A. I was shocked and appalled that a late assignment could be given equal footing as my own promptly submitted assignment. When I confronted you, your blue eyes glistening, you told me you didn’t think grades and deadlines mattered. You said you wouldn’t grade anything at all if you didn’t have to. You wanted us to read for the sake of reading, to write for the sake of writing, to break away from the social construct of grades and standardized test scores as the be-end-all of our existence. But my young mind couldn’t wrap itself around the idea of learning for enjoyment rather than accomplishment. At that age, wanting to achieve, to succeed, I looked at my school work as a stepping stone to a higher path. I read to complete assignments, to get A’s, and to move forward.


When I was in middle school, I used to go to the library after school and fill my backpack with books each Monday, and devour them each week. I read through all the American Classics and most of the European by thirteen. I loved to immerse myself in imaginary worlds and far off places. But as a high school student, what did it mean to learn for enjoyment? So focused on reading as a means to an end, I hadn’t taken a moment to reflect on the actual experience of reading. I worked twenty hours a week, was editor of yearbook, president of the National Honor Society, and a contender for valedictorian. My life revolved around pushing forward for the sake of getting ahead. It became a reverberating cycle of obligations and commitments. There was no place for anything else. Creativity provided no immediate reward, and therefore was shoved aside.


But, over the year, your passion for literature, reading, and writing, helped me reconnect with my love of learning. Your stories of running with the bulls in Spain and sitting at cafes drinking café con leche and having wine at a tapas bar while writing filled my head with new outlooks. Reciting Neruda, you showed us the power and beautify of language. But, not only did I fall back in love with reading in your class, I fell in love with writing for the first time. I used the seven true sentences I wrote in your AP English class as my admission essay to Duke. The rawness of my life exposed in so few words, layers of truth and honesty woven together under your watchful direction. You believed that every word had a value, every sentence strung together so beautifully they would be read as a harmony. You pushed for us to believe that creativity and art had value-- something so often overshadowed in the emerging push of science and technology. Reading literature builds empathy and human connection—and you taught me that. And it is something that made me a better person, a better mother, and a better writer.


When I went to Duke, we remained in contact. You scolded me when I told you I was attending law school, grumbling that the world doesn’t need more lawyers. But I needed a profession that would provide me a stable income. “Does that really matter?” you asked. “Is money relevant?” I argued it was. As the years passed, our emails continued, our banter always lighthearted, our visits jovial. You talked to me about your life, Joaquin, your time with Andy, and sent me pictures of Renzo when he was born. And you always pushed me to remember that side of myself from my teen years that now lay buried under motherhood and responsibility, to uncover that seed of creativity you planted so many years ago. And finally, that seed you planted in my mind twenty-five years ago began to grow, as I put pen to paper and completed three novels.


That last time I saw you keeps playing over in my mind. You walked with a little shuffle, your moccasins making a swooshing sound as you went between the kitchen and dining table to put out our spread of fish and broccoli. As we ate, you congratulated me about finally landing an agent, and the possibility of getting my books published. Although, you cautioned me about writing “commercial fiction” and not literature, a long running feud we had. You kept apologizing that the fish was overdone, the broccoli too. “It’s all over cooked,” you said, moving your shoulders up and down. But, as always, you were being too harsh on yourself.

When I brought up your book, you said it was “too short” and not well written, while looking away. But I told you the writing had taken me aback. The short story about the about a man facing the mortality of his father brought me to tears more than once, especially reading it knowing you were now facing yours, having been diagnosed with cancer. The emotionality of your words conveyed a powerful reminder of what you had always told me: write well and don’t worry about anything else. Good writing provides its own reward.


After that dinner, I had planned to write an article about you for Teacher Appreciation Week. I wanted you to know the impact your teaching had on me, as a person and as a writer. But your journey ended sooner than expected. My heart still hangs heavy with your absence. Twenty-five years of mentorship gone in an instant. And now you leave me to chase my own “memory butterflies with a melancholy net.” Mr. Perez, thank you for being such a profound influence on my life. It was a privilege to be your friend, and an honor to receive your guidance. I will always aspire to meet the expectations you have set, to write words that when strung together create a rhythm and cadence to evoke emotion and sentiment, and to write well just like you taught me. I will miss you always. Rest easy dear friend.


Love,

your best student ever and your dearest friend Julie




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