Art (Perry) and Writing

I imagine that I first met Art Perry some evening at a junior high school basketball game, in the context of Art’s being the new stepfather of one of my hoops teammate and childhood friend.  Art was a good guy, we all knew, if you can really know anything at all in 7th or 8th or 9th grade.  I look back on myself back then and I marvel at what an idiot I was about many things – girls and relationships, the size and complexity of the world, and which adults I should pay attention to and which I should not.  But Art was a guy I always paid attention to.

Once I reached 10th grade, I started talking with Art – Mr. Perry – who taught English at Mt Blue High School.  Oddly, I never took an actual class with him.  I spent one day in his popular creative writing class – I’m sure he pulled some strings to get me into that section – but the older students really intimidated me.  I cared so much about writing – my writing, My Precious – that the thought of exposing that passion to my schoolmates was unbearable.  So I pulled out of the course.  Idiot move, looking back.  But I believe I explained my fears well enough to Art, so he suggested we do an independent study together.

Over the weeks and months of that independent study, Art would sit with me and we’d talk about whatever science fiction or fantasy or horror story I’d written – following my heroes Isaac Asimov or J. R. R. Tolkien or Stephen King – and he’d help me with my dialogue, with description, with developing scenes.  He corrected my mistakes encouragingly, asked respectful questions about how I’d constructed my characters and plots, and, when all was said and done, sent me on my way to write another draft.  It was, I later learned, very much the way an editor sits with any writer and goes through a work in progress line by line.  I learned much about how to use language effectively.  And now, as a teacher, I understand that this process – line editing – is one of the best ways to improve your writing.

Through the years, Art worked hard to create opportunities for student writers at Mt. Blue to learn the craft.  He arranged to have a couple of personal computers set up in a special room – the Writing Lab – and convinced the principal to let some of us out of study hall to go there and work on our stuff.  I would hang out with some of the older kids – one guy was writing a play – and talk about stories and books and tell jokes.  The Writing Lab – in actuality, probably just a storage closet with a couple of Apple II machines – was our space.  For a time, Art also convinced a group of us to put out a student newspaper – really a stapled together stack of purple-on-white dittos.  Again, I see now the care with which he put all this together.  Attention to craft.  Creation of community.  Occasion for publication.

I imagine now that the English teachers at Mt Blue looked after their budding writers – shepherded us through – and I remain always grateful for what lasting, substantive lessons taught by Kathy Lynch, Joanne Zwyna, Art Perry – and especially Beverly Bisbee, the teacher Art put me in contact with who helped me figure out what I really wanted to do with words.  I heard about Art’s battle with cancer from Bev Bisbee, and heard of his passing from my old friend Dave, who had him as a student.  No doubt scores of colleagues and former students will find their ways to express their gratitude for the lessons Art passed on and their grief at his passing.   That so many of them will express these sentiments so eloquently is certain proof of his skill as an educator.

What else is there to write? Art Perry was a graduate of Bowdoin and Middlebury, a lover of skiing and so many Maine things, a solid citizen, a good family man.  Back in the day, he was a guy we teens all liked, even though, at the ages we were, we found most adults domineering and tedious.  And Art Perry stayed in touch – even in my thirties, I was always sure to get a nicely typed reply from him whenever I sent a letter.  I trust that he’s free of pain now, and resting lightly in whatever realm beyond that he might have imagined for himself.  I trust he’ll read what I’ve written -- one last letter to him -- and make a few encouraging corrections in the margins.  I wish him lots of fine books to read, clean fresh paper in a well-lighted space, and all the pens and pencils he could want.  Thanks for everything, Teach. 

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