Everyone — if they’re lucky — has that teacher. The one who manages to send a hook into your soul and pluck out something you didn’t even know was there — who challenges and encourages and supports in equal measure.
For me, and for hundreds of other students who have passed through the Thomas Jefferson/Maggie L Walker Governor’s School since the late ’90s, that teacher was Bear O’Bryan. We lost him, suddenly and shockingly, this past weekend.
Bear taught American literature and creative writing at the Governor’s School in Richmond, Virginia. As an educator now, I tell stories about him all the time — how he never had to raise his voice to settle his students, how his classroom was a refuge and a comfort, how much we all wanted to impress him. He set high bars and expected us to clear them — and no one wanted to disappoint him. Anglophile and genre-fiction-lover that I am, I’m not really the biggest fan of a lot of “classic” American literature, but by heaven, I tried for him. For Bear, I read every damn word of Moby Dick and Fountainhead. In his class, we engaged in Socratic seminars that taught us more about how to use our brains than about the books we were discussing. We put Thoreau on trial for tax evasion (I’m still mad that I, as the prosecution, lost just because my co-counsel totally flubbed the cross-examination, but I also still remember Bear catching up to me in the lunch line later to tell me that I had “aced it” even though the jury hadn’t gone my way). We put together personal anthologies — a legendary project in the school, that you spent your freshman and sophomore years hearing about from the juniors and seniors. Each student had to pick a personal theme (mine was “Identity”) and assemble a compendium of essays, poetry, prose, artwork, and such relating to that theme, then write personal responses to them. It was such a special thing — at the end of the year, we traded them in class and read from each others’. We could block out things that were too personal, if we wanted, and though I’d let my heart spill in all its gruesome glory all over those pages, I decided not to censor anything. Through that bravery, I ended up finding out how much I had in common with a girl I hadn’t really bothered to get to know up until then, who I definitely would’ve pegged as too cool and pulled-together to be facing the same tangled identity issues I was struggling through. He made us open our hearts not just to ourselves but to each other, fostering that awareness of a world outside yourself that is so critical to growing up.
I looked back on my personal anthology recently, and while some of it is pretty embarrassing to recall (as is true, I think, for most things from most people’s teenage years), it also provoked a strange fondness in me for the girl I was then, tumultuous and melodramatic though she was. Someone on Facebook commented that he’d done the same thing recently, and suggested that maybe it’s time for a new one, to reflect where he is now — I wonder if that might not be a great collective project for his former students to undertake, revisiting his signature project in his honor.
In his creative writing class and on the literary magazine, we learned a lot more about what the act of writing can do for the human soul. Bear’s guidance nudged me out of the fairly narrow confines I’d written in up to that point and got me exploring new avenues, new viewpoints. I even gave poetry a try (I’m not much good at it, but once again — I tried for him). Across that year, we learned about narrative structure, point of view, tone, and voice. And we learned to work together creatively, evaluating each others’ strengths as writers and finding the ways to make the most of them. At the end of that class, each student assembled a portfolio of work — the things we’d done that year that we were most proud of. I cried when he gave me mine back with an A+ and a note saying, “We’ll be studying you someday.” He was so sure. He knew I’d be a success as a writer, at a time when I was far from that confident in myself. That this man I admired so much had so much faith in me… it’s been an inspiration and an instigation to this day, to live up to that potential that he saw and to make him proud. I still have that note, tucked away somewhere in my notebooks and papers.
Bear provoked my intellect and my creativity, but he was also unfailingly kind and patient with chaotic teenage emotions. Two moments in particular stick out for me. One was on 9/11. The news about New York came just as second period was ending — but no one knew anything at the time. For a while we weren’t even sure if it was terrorism or a horrible accident. My next class was creative writing. Bear came in, switched on the radio, and said, “Take notes. Write.” No one talked. We just listened, as the second plane hit, as the towers fell, as the stories of death and devotion rolled in. We listened as a plane hit the Pentagon. And that’s when I started, very quietly, freaking out — because my father, who worked in public safety and national security, had been on his way to the Pentagon for a meeting that morning. I didn’t want to say anything, but Bear noticed that something was wrong. He came up behind me and quietly asked if there was someone I needed to call. Gratefully, I nodded, ran out to my locker and the illicit cell phone I had stashed there, and confirmed that my father had only gotten halfway up 95 before word about the WTC hit and the governor called him back to Richmond. I was able to return to class much calmer than I’d left it.
Another was much less epic in scale, but also telling of the empathy he had for his students. When I wandered in to lit class once, teary-eyed after a particularly dramatic lunch period, he quietly gestured for me to go out and take a few more minutes to compose myself, if I needed them — with no condemnation, no warning about missing the start of class, without drawing any embarrassing attention to me. It was such a simple little thing, but such a tremendous gesture of kindness to a 16 year old who had way more emotions than she had yet learned to negotiate.
There’s always an element of selfishness to mourning, I think, and I’m keenly aware of it as I write this post. I want to honor the man, to tell everyone what an astonishingly good teacher he was, how many students he reached over the years. And at the same time, I’m just eaten up with guilt, that I hadn’t talked to him in a while, not since running into him at the Playhouse when he was chaperoning a trip. He was so happy to see me, so proud that I was working for the ASC, doing something he knew I love. I’m glad I got to see him then, but I’m so sad that I never got the chance to tell him about my book. I thought about writing him to tell him about how things were progressing, but I wanted to wait until there was something real to tell, y’know? Until it was a sure thing, a sale, a preorder-able physical object. Now I feel dumb for holding back.
I’m heartbroken that now I won’t get to send it to him, like I was planning to, inscribed with a note so that he’d know just how much his encouragement meant to me. My mother and I were just talking on Friday about how much I was looking forward to doing that. Over a decade later, I still wanted so much for him to be proud of me.