Mrs. Crispino: A Tribute

Just a heads up: this one gets pretty heavy.

I’m sure most people had an teacher they loved while they were in school. Maybe it was an English teacher, someone who taught them to love reading, or got them interested in writing. Maybe they were just good teachers whose classes you enjoyed.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about my English teacher during my sophomore year of high school, Mrs. Crispino. She was always something of an odd duck, and more than once described me as a “deer caught in headlights”, a description that isn’t entirely false. Mrs. Crispino was cheerful and friendly, and her assignments were a lot more fun to work on than most. We had to write short romance stories, our reply to the shepherd in “A Passionate Shepherd to His Love”, and research and write an opinion piece on whether or not we thought William Shakespeare was a real person, or a pseudonym.

She and her husband were killed a few summers ago in a motorcycle accident. It was a shock to me. Not only was she my teacher, her son and I were in the same year and we were frenemies. When I heard the news, one of my first thoughts was about her son, his grief, and how scared and adrift he must have felt. I haven’t talked to him since I graduated high school almost ten years ago, but I do catch myself wondering about him and how he’s doing now.

The reason, I think, she’s been on my mind is because of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. I read the book last summer for the first time, and when I posted about it on Facebook, at least three people asked the same question: “How did you get out of reading that in school?”

And the answer is Mrs. Crispino.

Near the end of my sophomore year of high school, a student at another school in the area killed himself. I didn’t know him personally, but I had friends who did. Suicide has always  disturbed me, and did even moreso when I was a teenager. I was devastated when I heard about his death, especially when I found out that he was a year younger than me. But because I didn’t know him, I didn’t think it would be right for me to talk about him, or how I felt. I thought trying to talk this through with someone would be disrespectful to his memory.

I wasn’t the only one hurting. Most of the underclassmen were. Our guidance counselors and religion teachers offered us support, with group discussions and prayers, but I didn’t take part. I probably should have.

This was around the time we were finishing All Quiet on the Western Front in English class, and were supposed to move on to Of Mice and Men.

If you haven’t read Of Mice and Men (which I highly recommend you do), what you need to know is that it’s a very sad book. There’s no happy ending.

In English class, we’d read so many tragedies already that year, and now were going through one in real life. We were 200 students in desperate need of a happy ending. After we closed All Quiet on the Western Front for the final time, Mrs. Crispino changed the curriculum. Instead of Of Mice and Men, the last thing we would be reading as a group was Arsenic and Old Lace.

If you’ve never read it, Arsenic and Old Lace is the story of two old women who poison visitors with elderberry wine. Their bodies are buried in the basement by another man who believes that he is Theodore Roosevelt and he’s digging locks for the Panama Canal. It sounds like a grisly story, but it’s a comedy.

And it’s a really good comedy. At times, all my classmates were laughing as we read it, and more than once did I hear it discussed in the halls or at free period. Everyone seemed to be really enjoying it.

Fiction is important. Whether you read for entertainment, to learn, a way to pass the time, you get something out of it. Sometimes it changes you. Sometimes a story stays with you forever.

I can’t say that Arsenic and Old Lace was a life-changing story. What stayed with me wasn’t the old murderesses or the buried bodies. It was the kindness Mrs. Crispino gave our class. She saw how we were hurting, and helped us smile again.

I’ll remember her for many things: her fun class assignments; they way she giggled whenever she read the word “gay”, much like her students; how she helped me be a better writer. But most of all, I’ll remember her for bringing light during a dark time.



Trope Discussion: The Chosen One

Every so often, I’d like to take a break from revisiting old books and think about fiction itself. Specifically, tropes in fiction. That is, common reoccurring themes you’ll see in fiction. And right now, there’s one in particular that I’d like to discuss.

There was always something about this trope that rubbed me the wrong way. I used to think it was because I would see it so often. The movies above are just a tiny, tiny portion of the stories that use this “Chosen One” as part of their plot.

I used to think that it annoyed me because it’s a cliche prophecies and stories about the “Chosen One” date as far back as ancient Greece. It’s present in religion, and no doubt you’ve read a book or two wherein the main character was somehow prophesied to save everyone. Even some of my favorite series, Harry Potter and His Dark Materials fall into this.

There’s a few different reasons I don’t like this trope. First is the foregone conclusion. If Suzy’s destined to defeat the evil overlord, then it’s going to happen, period. Sure, she’ll go on an adventure getting to the bad guy, but is there any suspense left when she finally faces him? We already know that she’s going to defeat him.

Real heroism is hard, and it’s not accomplished by a single person. Look at any real-life hero. Chances are, there’s a whole mess of people behind him that helped make him a hero.  Since I work in the aviation industry, Sully Sullenberger immediately comes to mind. He was the pilot of “Miracle on the Hudson” fame, and quite rightfully hailed as a hero. But that day could have ended very differently without the plane’s whole crew, the volunteer rescuers, even the commercial ferries that came to help.

The other thing that never sat well with me is the idea of fate. When a character has a pre-determined fate, they’re not given the chance to say no to it. Sure, they can try to run from their destiny, but it always has a way of catching up to them. The prophesied character doesn’t get a chance to refuse to undertake this task.

To quote Dumbledore, “Dark times lie ahead of us and there will be a time when we must choose between what is easy and what is right.” Taking the”easy” path — whether it be joining the villain, or just going home and waiting for someone else to clean up this mess — should be incredibly tempting to follow. Following the “right” path will be challenging and dangerous, and there will be hardships along the way. When there’s no destiny attached to you, you could back out at any time. A true hero keeps going, no matter the struggle, and that makes us feel their triumphs and tragedies more deeply.

To me, heroes aren’t chosen. They’re the ones that make the choices.