I remember three things about Mr. Schnakenberg’s English class.
One: He wrote big, cursive letters on the blackboard in yellow chalk, and wiped his fingers on the top of his jeans, just outside the pockets. Two: He was unapologetically tough—no excuse could explain away why you didn’t complete your reading assignment.
And three: He had a profound impact on my abilities as a writer.
I wound up in his class two years in a row—for my sophomore and junior years in high school. My peers weren’t particularly fond of him. They thought he was gruff and hard to please. I remember one classmate was so nervous to present a paper that he fainted in the middle of the classroom. And to be clear, I was terrified of Mr. Schnakenberg for much of my time at Charlotte’s South Mecklenburg High.
He deducted half a letter grade for major grammatical offenses and misspellings, and was a stickler for understanding the difference between active and passive voices. Sentence structure and word choice mattered. He pushed us to be witty and even a little irreverent, but always to a purpose. A sentence is only as good as the paragraph of which it is a part.
I didn’t know it then, but every time I completed an assignment and received it back with his notes in the margins, I was growing as a writer. As someone who now writes for a living, I can’t think of another person who shaped the way I approach a blank page—except Hemingway, and we’ll get to him.
Like Hemingway, though, Mr. Schnakenberg had wild stories of a full life: Quitting school to surf in Florida, or making sandwiches for Jimmy Buffett. The only thing I genuinely disliked about him was that he went to Duke.
I saved one of the papers he loved, an essay about the funny things I witnessed as a grocery store cashier. (“I have decided,” I wrote nearly 15 years ago, “that if all men eat like the ones who shop in my store, we will all die by the time we are fifty.”) The praise at the top—“This was a classic! Great job!”—was worth as much to me as the A.
Toward the end of my time in Mr. Schnakenberg’s class, in the waning months of my junior year, he assigned us a group book report project. We were supposed to read a book and produce a creative video interpreting the plot.
He assigned my classmates and I A Farewell to Arms, the Ernest Hemingway novel of love amid war. It was my first real exposure to Hemingway and the book report would plant the seeds for my long fascination with the author and his prose. I was enthralled with the story, at least as much as a 16-year-old boy can be interested in a love story. My group included a classmate, Sarah, a friend I had a crush on for about a year. I liked her and was pretty sure she liked me, too, yet we were doing that awkward dance teenagers do—flirting, just enough, but too scared to say anything else.
When we completed the project and presented our report to the class, Mr. Schnakenberg, who had picked up on our budding romance, teased us about a hand-holding scene in our video book report. Sarah and I both turned fire engine red, blushing out of excitement and embarrassment that we were so obvious that even our teacher figured out we should be dating.
I still have my copy of A Farewell to Arms from that class. It’s come with me to five cities and has survived a dozen moves. It sits on the second shelf of a bookcase in my living room, between The Old Man and the Sea and For Whom the Bell Tolls. I’ve read it too many times to count.
Every time I pick it up, I remember that book report, Sarah, and Mr. Schnakenberg’s English class. My cheeks blush, even after all these years.