I have attended school for 21 years — or, at least, that was the best number I could count to. I’ve probably had well over 100 teachers, professors, instructors, coaches, etc., all of whom I consider teachers. I have tried for years to pinpoint the most influential teacher in my life, and it seems to be a moving target. Wherever I am in my life, I seem to have a new “most influential” teacher. I needed to come up with one for this column, and given the tremendous quality of education I’ve had, it was very difficult.
I finally narrowed it down to Steve Missey. Mr. Missey is an English teacher at St. Louis University High School, and he is also the English department chair. Here’s why I chose him.
I must have been a junior at the time, and our class was reading “Catch-22.” It is a dense read full of all sorts of symbolism and meaning. We were pushed hard in the class and had difficult reading assignments every night with a lot of pages to digest. Discussion the next day would be intense and very much like law school; if you were not prepared, you were left out, and that was not good.
Frequently, Mr. Missey would devise two sides of an argument or position based on the reading. The discussion would grow from there, and one side would argue their point and vice versa. One day, it was my turn to lead the charge for a designated position. I was assigned one side of an argument, and a friend of mine who was an amazing pianist and with a brilliant mind, Grzegorz (Greg) Florek, had the other. I knew Greg was smart, and his deadpan deliveries could cut you down. Typically, I would never be able to hold my own against Greg.
But this day felt different. We turned our desks against each other. One side of the class facing the other. We went back and forth arguing certain points, citing support in the text, trying to one-up each other to prove our position was superior than our opponents’. Mr. Missey loved it. He called it an “epic battle between Finney and Florek” the next day. It still brings tears to my eyes thinking of it. I was very proud to make such a smart teacher think well of me. I cannot remember the substance of the debate nor much of “Catch-22,” but I don’t think that matters. It was the experience that mattered; the book was just the vehicle.
I have no idea if I held my own that day, but I felt like I did. I have Mr. Missey to thank for that feeling — the confidence that he sowed in me that day in his English class during a debate with Greg Florek. It reminds me of the incredible impact teachers have each and every day.
It also reminds me how important a good, committed teacher is for the development of your life. Also, in case you were wondering, Greg became a lawyer as well. He is in Chicago the last I heard and is probably still a great guy.