It was 2002, my junior year of high school, and I was slouching in the back of my AP English class -- slouching through life, really. We were reading Dubliners by James Joyce. Up until that point, the English language had been as mechanical or automatic as drawing another breath. No room for artistry. I read Araby and it was like someone kicked open a door in my head.
This teacher was one of the best I ever had. Something he said that day early in October sunk into my skin like a splinter, and I've been picking at it ever since.
"James Joyce has done everything there is to be done with the English language. So, what's the point?"
When you're 16, there's a lot of "what's the point?" in your life. Never had I asked myself, what's the point of writing? I assumed he meant the pursuit was pointless, which piqued my interest. It took me 13 years to realize what he meant.
Fast forward to 2009. I'm sitting in a History of Empire class at The College of New Jersey, team taught by two of the other best educators I've ever had. We were talking about Great Britain, and consequently, Ireland. One of them said this:
"The British took Ireland. And naturally, they decide that the Irish are going to speak English. Years later, along comes James Joyce, who does it better than any of the British could. But that's the Irish for you."
In tomorrow's paper, there will be a story about how major colleges and universities are no longer requiring English majors to take Shakespeare courses. I read it, and for the first time, my English teacher's take on Joyce made sense.
Before there was Joyce, there was Shakespeare. And before there was Shakespeare, there was Virgil. And before there was Virgil, there was Homer.
My English teacher's point wasn't the futility of writing or storytelling. His point was its progression. Its process. Its evolution. There won't be another Joyce. But that's not the point. The point, for me anyway, is the calling. The rest will sort itself out.