By Aaron Sachs
February 23, 2015
There were rumors—which turned out to be true—that he’d been a Marine, a truck driver, a semi-pro hockey player: not what you want to hear about your new English teacher when you’re a painfully sensitive and silent 11th grader.
But his manner turned out to be gentle and reflective. Mr. Outerbridge taught us with care.
He also ran the bookroom, down in the sub-basement of our monolithic school. It was where other teachers went to pick up their textbooks—28 copies of Romeo and Juliet, 22 of French for Mastery. But I went for his unofficial office hours, because I was amazed by his appreciative and probing comments on my essays and stories. He would attach three or four pages filled with his strong, compact cursive, blue or black on narrow-ruled yellow paper. He made me feel like I mattered.
I had never spoken in class, though, until one day in April, when we’d read some stories by J. D. Salinger, who somehow seemed to articulate my particular malaise. When I raised my hand, Mr. Outerbridge dropped his chalk.
During those quiet hours in the bookroom, he’d never tried to cajole me into getting over my shyness. We would just talk, and he would pour steaming coffee or tea from a Thermos. Gradually, patiently, he taught me that I might have something to say, and that words could bring a sense of connection into the world.
Aaron Sachs teaches at Cornell University. He is the author, most recently, of Arcadian America: The Death and Life of an Environmental Tradition, which combines historical scholarship with memoir.