A Lesson in “Taking Care”


Recently I briefly wrote about an English teacher who trusted me with his original novel. His name was Harold McDuffie, an unassuming-looking man with what I would call a policeman’s mustache. While his teaching style was dry, I could see that he appreciated literature. His love for words didn’t translate well, not in terms of enthusiasm or charisma. I think in part this might be because high school students weren’t his ideal audience. These opinions are all mine, of course. For all I know, he might have anticipated each day to interact with young people. Works by Melville or Faulkner, however, tended to be at the bottom of the playlist for the average high school student.

One day, without much fanfare, Mr. McDuffie stopped me and asked me if I would be interested in reading a novel he had written. He warned me that it had some mature content and that I needed to be careful with that aspect of it. I think he knew that my home life had exposed me to things beyond the contents of his novel, but he was smart enough to know that it was a risk, one that I would not expose him to. I was flabbergasted and honored. Reading the words someone chooses to put on paper inevitably lets us get to know them better and connects the mechanics of translating ideas to words and content.

After I wrote a lengthy interpretation of a book, Mr. McDuffie had asked me why I had not shortened my homework. I told him that I thought writing was easy. All one has to do is to put pen to paper and not stop. (Later, Steve Martin stole my idea for the New Yorker and one of his books.)  “What about the mistakes?” Mr. McDuffie asked. “There aren’t any if you refuse to see them that way.” It turns out this is a common life theme for many of us.

Later, he brought in a printer’s box full of several hundred linen sheets of paper. I had never held an original unpublished work before, and the effect was mesmerizing. The title of the book was “Taking Care,” and the main character’s name was Budd Clevenger. The plot involved a drunk-driving death and the cycle of vengeance that followed. Drunk driving was a topic woven all through my childhood: my father had killed a cousin of mine while drunk, I had been in a few accidents involving alcohol, and my parents had each been rewarded with multiple DWIs. They were also involved in the DWI “fixing” scandal that sent a notable lawyer to prison.

As many things as I’ve forgotten, I will always remember the excitement of taking the novel home, opening the box, and starting on page one with the inside cover sheet. I had to carefully pick out each sheet, read it, and lay it face down on the other side of the box. Despite the book’s length, I read it in one evening. One thing about the novel that caught me was that it was one which took place in Northwest Arkansas, traversing places I might have known.

Even as a work of fiction, Mr. McDuffie did as so many authors had done before him: he secreted away little slices of himself into his novel. While I had no way to know which pieces might be fiction and which might be the truth, it opened my eyes to him as a real person struggling with the same life issues that everyone else had. He was a descriptive and gifted writer.

Over the years, I have done deep web searches to see if McDuffie’s novel ever made it to the shelves or to a screenplay adaptation. His book deserved such a chance. While it was no work by Faulkner, it was worthy of being shared and read; because it wasn’t Faulkner, though, it would have appealed to a broader range of interested readers.

That I remember the title of the book and so much about it should indicate the level of attention I gave to the novel. While I read many books in Mr. McDuffie’s class, I read those with a casual indifference granted to schoolwork; as for his original, unpublished novel, I gave it the reverence it deserved. It would have been sinful to have not shown appreciation for the gift of sharing that my English teacher granted me.

Beyond the act of sharing the book, he shared a moment with me. It turns out to be one which lingers. Thanks, Mr. McDuffie.

(PS: I also have some stories about good and strange times I had in his wife’s classes, too)

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