Western Carolina University


Mimi Fenton, associate professor of English and convocation speaker, urges students (pictured below) to learn from teachers of all kinds – inside and outside the classroom.


Mimi Fenton, an award-winning teacher and associate professor of English at Western Carolina University, challenged the more than 1,500 freshmen enrolled at WCU this fall to read avidly – not only books, but also themselves. Her address at Freshman Convocation (Aug. 22) drew upon required reading for incoming students, Frank McCourt's “Teacher Man,” the 2006 Freshman Reading Program selection.

Here are excerpts from the speech she delivered at Tuesday's convocation:

You were all asked to read Frank McCourt's memoir, “Teacher Man,” and part of my job here today is to comment upon it.  There's a lot to be learned from it — perhaps not in immediately obvious and typically “educational” ways that other books instruct or inspire you. But it should resonate deeply as you think back to your own childhoods. To your own stories and experiences as students. To all of the typical as well as the unlikely teachers you've had in your past. And it also reaffirms the same advice everyone wants you to have: “Find what you love, and do it.” And another reason you should read McCourt's book is because, as everyone will also keep telling you, to succeed in college, you've got to do the reading.

McCourt's book reminds us of the value of what our pasts can offer, if we choose to value that. Frank McCourt's memoir should also remind us that there are lots of people out there who can teach us. And maybe each of you has, just like McCourt, a person in your life whom you just genuinely adore. Because that person is as close to ideal and beautiful as a person ever could be. And that person might also be one of the best teachers you'll ever have. 

For me, this person was, and is, my own little brother. From the time I could talk, I called him “MyPerfectBrotherPaul.” As if that were his god-given birthname. All six syllables melted into one magnificent flowing sound and soul: MyPerfectBrotherPaul… He had this amazing gift for seeing, appreciating, protecting, and nurturing people for just who they were and who they wanted to be … When I wanted to be the best short-stop in the history of the universe, MyPerfectBrotherPaul would hit grounders to me all day long. And pretend he was a sports announcer admiring and praising my every move. And after he chased Jim Schnurr all the way home and told Schnurr's mother that Jim had pushed me off my bike, MyPerfectBrotherPaul told me that if I wanted the big kids to let me play short-stop for them--I shouldn't go around calling them “doofus-headed corn cobs who can't catch.”

MyPerfectBrotherPaul, like all of the best teachers I've ever had or you have ever had, knows when to tell you that sometimes there are better ways to accomplish what you're trying to accomplish. Knows when to let you make your own mistakes without calling you stupid. And knows when and how to feed your dreams and ambitions.  And sometimes we don't always even recognize who our teachers are or what that “deeper meaning” is that we're being taught. Just that there's someone who loves us and cares enough to be teaching us something.

Learning doesn't only take place in the classroom with teachers. So take time to learn from the mountains. Go water sliding at Turtle Back Falls, and hike up to Pinnacle Point in Sylva. Go rock climbing right there at Catamount Gap. Play Frisbee by the clock tower, and go to the track meets and poetry slams.  And read books about other cultures, other lands, other people, other times so you can see beyond the boundaries of provincialism and nationalism. Beyond the blinding speed of just living in the moment without appreciation of and connection to history, tradition, and time.

Read so you will remember that not all growth means progress, and that the here and now may not be the epitome of what humanity can be. Take time to learn from everything and everyone around you. You will be surprised at who and what your best teachers have been. And who and what your best teachers will become.  And keep Frank McCourt's book in mind-- so you won't forget that the life you live today becomes the story you create--and tell--and have told about you tomorrow. You cannot rewrite the truths within your own stories.

Good teachers will do that for a person—guide you toward the depths of your heart and mind and talents, and help you find your way into your future.  And good books and good teachers help you create and find the stories of your life. Stories that have made you who you are and who you choose to become. It's your job now as students to really DO the reading. And to find what you love. And do that. 

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Last modified: Wednesday, August 23, 2006
Copyright 2006 by Western Carolina University