“Late Have I Taught You”
Whenever I told people I wanted to study English, they would invariably reply, “So you want to be a teacher.” I would laugh—ha!—and tell them I’d never be a teacher. I wanted to be a great novelist.
Apparently, they knew more than I did.
After a decade of trying out various careers—reporting, ad sales, insurance, editing, and even a stint doing various part-time jobs—I found myself applying at a high school in tiny Holcomb, Kansas.
Other than its proximity to Garden City, where my wife and I settled after grad school, I think what drew me most to Holcomb is its literary history. The sight of the Clutter murders, Holcomb became famous after Truman Capote and Harper Lee visited and Capote forged a new genre, the nonfiction novel, with that tragedy at its heart. As an aspiring mystery writer, I felt the school would be a good fit. The principal and other English teachers agreed.
Throughout the year, I talk with students and other teachers about the subject matter I loved most. Over the summers, I churn out page after page of prose. Those first few years, I thought I had to recreate every amazing experience I’d had at K-State. I wanted to deliver intricate lectures on Milton, launch the high school version of a digital humanities site, and introduce my students to so much metaphysical poetry, Dadaism, and postmodernism that they left my class as budding avant-garde poets, playwrights, and novelists. I soon realized, however, that college content could wait for college. I found myself drawing, unexpectedly, not on what my K-State professors taught but how they taught it. I channeled, as best as I could, their enthusiasm, their teaching styles, and their empathy.
I can still recall the Chaucer test I was allowed to take later because the day I was supposed to take it, I’d lost all my normal emotional regulation. I also remember the Shakespeare professor who stopped me on campus whenever she saw me to ask how I was doing. This wasn’t because I was a stellar student, but rather because the semester I’d taken her class had been one of my worst. These professors and countless others taught me writing and literary analysis, but they also taught me far more.
When COVID struck our community, we suddenly found ourselves home-bound, finishing the school year over Zoom. Though I appreciated the extra time with my family and time to write, I missed seeing my students in person; I missed helping them with their problems and listening to their funny stories. I realized that when people said all those years ago, “So you want to be a teacher,” it wasn’t just about my choice of major. They knew me, probably better than I knew myself, and could see even then how much I would enjoy helping the next generation and passing on my love for literature.
Another by-product of quarantine included a finished manuscript. I sent out my debut mystery novel while also planning out the last nine weeks via Zoom. My future editor, Kaycee John, responded positively to the book and over the next year we worked on it together. On August 18th, a dream I’d had for most of my life became a reality and I published my first novel.
An accountant friend recently asked what I’ll do if my book makes enough money for me to quit teaching. My immediate response was, “Keep teaching.” What I’ve found in this career is truly a vocation. It has been more rewarding than I could’ve ever imagined. I feel a bit like the servant from Baghdad who, seeing Death in the marketplace, becomes frightened and flees to Samarra. Death tells the man’s master, “I was astonished to see your servant here in Baghdad. I have an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.” For years I ran from teaching like a man avoiding death and, now that the reality of being a full-time writer is coming into view, I find myself recoiling at the idea of giving it up.
— Steven Miller (MA ’15)