After teaching teenagers for over twenty years, what I look for in students or, what I look forward to in students rather, is voice—that unique and memorable quality, that great Yawp (original Whitman, not Dead Poets Society), not only in terms of writing but in most everything they do. For me, Terry Fass has a voice that is solely and very uniquely his own. Whether it’s doing impressions of me in class discussion, breaking rules on the page, spending hours online, or gallivanting like a true dandy on the stage, his mix of intelligence, heart, a nd humor always comes out in ways most people (with a sense of humor at least) find quite entertaining. He’s the type of student teachers want in their classes (at least once) and friends want to be around on campus or off.
I was lucky enough to have Terry in my American Literature class last year and, right away, I knew that I had struck the type of gold that doesn’t shine right away but will end up shining with enough mining and polish and elbow grease. Teaching teenagers at 9 am is no picnic (I miss those picnics!), and Terry’s offbeat sense of humor and engagement really perked the class up. Most of his peers didn’t know that most nights Terry was staying up very late doing the Laughing Goat online standup comedy class. When I asked him about it, he said all the webinars and Skype-o-sodes really got his juices flowing, priming him for a day of enriching classes. Sadly, he told me this when I’d caught him dozing off during my annual lecture on the three-and-a-half major types of irony.
Then, as mature students do, Terry found a way to connect his outside world to the world of RRHS. We were studying Thoreau’s Walden, and Terry really focused on doing “bits” as he called them around the fact that Thoreau was probably asexual or perhaps homosexual, fairly overweight, and sported what kids now call an “Amish” beard. When we discussed Thoreau’s idea about being awake in our own lives and how the morning is the best time to “renew and refresh,” Terry developed a lisp, stuffed his sweatshirt with his backpack and held the fur lining from his parka under his chin. I don’t remember most of the jokes he delivered, but one had to do with eating a muskrat without using his hands and getting it “all up in his Amith.” It’s true that HDT mentions our animal nature impulse to eat a woodchuck raw, not a muskrat, but I saw Terry’s performance as a humorous way to connect with an antiquated text. After all, and especially in high school English, “laughter is the best medicine” (Proverbs, not Patch Adams). At the end of the early American unit, Terry wrote an intriguing essay comparing the idea of being awake in Thoreau with the film series Jackass. According to Terry’s thesis, just as Thoreau preached “waking up” to a dull and indifferent majority of Americans in the mid-nineteenth century, by snorting wasabi, repeated kicks in the groin, and jumping golf carts over ramps, the Jackass crew is both waking themselves and their audience, comprised mostly of teenage boys like Terry himself. Terry ended his piece by saying with apathetic young men, you need to hit them where it hurts. I think he meant the scrotal area.
Terry has that type of good-natured engagement, no matter who was leading the class. In the spring, the principal (and former English teacher) Mr. Havenworth asked that a colleague of mine, Ms. Peters-Miller-Saltzman, come in to talk about Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, a book she wrote one of her masters’ thesis on. I assured Principal Havenworth that I had devised a laser-like precise lesson plan that really couldn’t include any interruptions or diversions. As you probably guessed having worked with your own set of administrators (“the dark side” my friend Noah calls them; he does a great heavy-breathing Darth Vader), I lost that battle of academic freedom. Even though this was only a supposed friendly guest gig, I was a little taken aback so I asked Terry to really be really prepared and “bring the goods.” He had already developed unique voices and taglines for each character (example: Vardaman: “My mama is a fiayash.”) When Terry let his first question rip, mumbling angrily like Anse (imagine Billy Bob Thornton in Slingblade, our guest lecturer was a little taken aback. She looked to me to clarify but I just pretended to take notes. If she wanted to come into my class as an expert, I figured, then she could handle the classroom management as well. I had some explaining to do with Principal Havenworth after the class (Terry did about six voices in total), but I think it was a worthwhile pedagogical experiment for us all. I know I learned that a class is a community with many players; they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts. In my class, that man was Terry Fass. Even though some of his voice cut a little close (I suffer from a chronic sinus infection, and I often wear vests), I truly enjoyed his turn on the classroom stage.
Terry Fass will bring his voice to your (get ready for cheesy metaphor) community chorus (sorry but it fit).
It is my great honor to write this letter in support of this most qualified candidate.
Lift up all voices!
Richard Fulton Winter
1998 Arizona Junior Humanities Excellence in Teaching Award—Honorable Mention
Class Sponsor of the Alternate Student Council
Author of The Bard’s Gentle Graces (poetry chapbook)