I have a theory that teachers fall into one of four categories.

There are the teachers whose names you can’t remember, from whom you learned practically nothing, who had no impact on your life. Some are bad, others are just indifferent.

There are the infamous teachers, whose names you will remember all your life because you still curse their names when you get together with old school friends.

There are the teachers who you liked all right, who taught you a thing or two and who were enjoyable to be around – teachers whose names you’d recognize if you saw them in the paper.

And then there’s a list – a very short list – of teachers who change your life. Teachers you know, or want to know, on a first-name basis. Teachers who actually taught you something, who treated you like a person, who made a real and lasting impact on your future.

When I think about my college experience, and about that fourth category of teacher, I realize that my list has at most four names on it. I’m not good at maintaining friendships, but I think of these people as being friends. I’ve eaten breakfast with them, camped out at coffee shops with them, traveled across the country with them, made big huge messes with them. I’ve made fun of them and recommended their classes to countless students. They are people I admire greatly.

On Tuesday, one of them passed away. That makes three out of the four to die within sixteen months. We lost Mary Ellen Ryder on August 25, David A. Wells on May 3, and now Tom Trusky on December 1 November 27.

Tom was one of only two teachers – in public school or college – who ever made me be critical of my own writing. He was the first teacher I ever had who told me that something I wrote sucked. (He was entirely right, of course.) Before making the fateful decision to take his undergraduate Poetry Writing course, I was blissfully ignorant of the fact that I wasn’t God’s gift to the written word. And ultimately, I was one of the lucky ones in that class – some of my stuff, by the end of the semester, didn’t entirely suck. Instead of letting his students slide by on charm and raw talent, he forced us to acknowledge our weaknesses, to improve, and to doubt. (He also forced me to admit that “fire” was a one-syllable word. My fingers were crossed then, and I still don’t believe it. But he insisted.)

It took me several years – delayed by my class and band schedule and, once, by Tom’s health – before I managed to sign up for Tom’s infamous Introduction to Book Arts class. If you look up Tom on a professor rating website, you’ll see long lines of people queuing up to complain about that class. The fact is that Tom’s classes were brutal. People signed up, thinking “poetry! bookmaking! easy A!” and inevitably received the shock of their young lives – assuming they didn’t drop out in the first three weeks, as at least half usually did. I still use some of the basic book forms Tom taught us on a fairly regular basis – they’re great class projects….

And I loved being challenged, loved his wickedly dry sense of humor (sometimes you wondered if you were really the only person in the room who got his jokes – surely not, right?), loved being held to a higher standard. I loved, in a sick sort of way, being told that something I did wasn’t very good. Oh, it made me mad as hell, of course. The only teacher who ever made me angrier than Tom was Dave, and that’s surely saying something.

I mean, how can you NOT love and loathe a man who sends the following as his (partial) evaluation of your final project – without a letter grade attached?

I had a hard time “dealing” (ww?) with your chain book, initially because it was on red paper–a particular dislike of mine.  Flocked whore wallpaper came/comes to mind, or terms like gothick melodrama overkill, too.  Then we got your chains on the cover. And chains for illustrations. And the word “chain/s.”

Of course, it’s all so over the top.

Then again, a hand on a throat, what is it?

I think I am the problem.  Although only an M.A. in English, I do have a Ph.D. in Repression.  So every mitochondria in me wiggles with distaste and screams and, in their famed a cappella mitochondria choral style, shriek “Underplay!” and “Less is more!”

I have no idea what a grade would be on your book.  I know what I like about it and what I don’t, but these reactions seem beyond grades, somehow?  Does that seem stoopid?  Again?  I always ask myself, how would I do this book, if I were to do it.  My problem is is that your book seems designed to function as a voice enraged, full-pitch, full-bore, 100% rant.  That’s a stunning concept–whether accurate or not.  I just can’t imagine myself doing such a book.  I always do things that are paced, little Polack narratives with hills & valleys.  Yet hoping to leave you breathless at the end.  Yours just rabbit punches from page 1 on, again and again and again.

Summary:  I think you’ve thought the book out and generally executed it well.  I can’t ask for any more.

I loved wondering which dark green button-down shirt Tom would wear that week. Loved the way he lit up like a little kid on Christmas whenever he encountered paper that glowed, dissolved, resisted water – you name it. Loved the way he eviscerated anything that was precious, self-absorbed, or cute. Tom could say the word “cute” in a way that made the sliminess of the word absolutely tactile.

Hey, look. It's Tom. In a dark green, button-down shirt. Hoodah thunket? (Photo by Kim Sherman-Labrum)

So I signed up for the graduate level book arts class. (My favorite joke, which I wore down to a nub, I’m sure, was that the undergrad class was Introduction to Book Arts and the grad class was Defense Against the Book Arts.) It was that class that taught me that I might actually be an artist, for certain quantities of art.

I don’t know what to say about any of this. I’m just rambling, now. The newspaper article calls him mischeivous, says he didn’t suffer fools, and there’s nothing I could say that would be more accurate.

I wonder if Tom ever figured out who made the Ethiopian scroll to protect against Professor Trusky. I’m sure he got the joke. It would have been even more obvious if he’d known – and maybe he did, probably he did – about evaluation day at the end of the undergrad class, when I went ballistic on some of the students who were too lazy and self-absorbed to understand what Tom was trying to get them to do. I guess I can have a really short fuse when it comes to defending “my” people. He probably liked that scroll better than the one I turned in.

Hey look, another dark green button-down shirt.

He was creative and restless and exhausting and whimsical and brutal and messy, oh so messy. I mourn for those who get stuck trying to clean out his office. His nest atop the Hemingway Western Studies Center is an enormous workshop piled high with paper, thread, needles, old work, old comic books, half-assembled galleys, student work, posters, paintings, t-shirts, buffalo dung, books upon books upon books… It’s like a physical manifestation of his right brain, all jumbled and bouncing like an abstract-random stand-up comedian. I can’t do him justice. Here; read a portion of an email he sent, lambasting a local book repair shop:

Many 19th century Bibles have highly sculptured boards, cheap leather-covered.  They look opulent as hell.  Unfortunately, such surfaces are prone to injury and damage and the leather used is often of a lesser quality or thin as Saran Wrap.  The self-proclaimed Rabbi Word-binder showed us one of these shiny, “restored” Bibles; providentially, he was also at work on a dingy, battered sculptured Bible.  A student, eyes wide as a Shari’s pie pan (Banana Cream), asked “How can you make that look like that!” while he pointed at the Before and then the After. “Simple,” said Rabbi.  He opened a cupboard, pulled out a can of Mop-‘n’-Glo, unscrewed its lid and dribbled what makes your wife’s kitchen floor gleam across the damaged cover. A miracle!  As with your wife’s floor, you may now eat off this Bible.  However, in terms of restoration, the demise of this Bible has been certainly assured.  (I know not the fate of your linoleum.)  My point being:  in checking with two or three other binders–in addition to the aforementioned two–about this restoration technique, all either chortled or fainted.

Yes, that plaid shirt is dark green. Just in case you were wondering. (Photo from the University of Alabama Book Arts Program)

I don’t like losing people. It’s the only thing I know of that makes me want to put my fist – sometimes my foot – through a wall. I don’t like feeling like that, particularly about people who inspired me to create rather than destroy. Now, maybe if I put my fist through a wall, and then turned my cast into a book – that he would have appreciated. As long as it wasn’t cute.

One more, just because I like it, of Tom (in navy and yellow, WHICH MAKE GREEN) with Enver. (Photo from the Manitoba Museum of Find's Art Flickr Page)

A nice tribute here that mentions some of the other facets of Tom’s fulfilling – and, I think, very full – life.

Tom’s website.

A flyer advertising his most recent book edition.

How do I end this post? Just keep publishing and editing it until WordPress explodes?



3 thoughts on “Three

  1. This post really spoke to me, because I too have a teacher who influenced me and shaped who I am today. Tom sounds like a once-in-a-lifetime teacher who genuinely cared about his subject and his students, and that is rare. He was blessed to have found a passion in his profession and to have students like you. May he rest in peace. Thank you for this post.

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