By Brian Hassett ’59
In 1958, when Fr. John Becker came to teach English at St. Ignatius, I was a senior. The focus of Senior English was writing, a discipline with which I had mixed success. The teaching style of the new teacher would be crucial. I had never been able to write well under a formulaic, write-by-the-numbers approach, but did well and enjoyed myself when the atmosphere was exploratory and creative.
For the first few weeks, the way Fr. Becker operated in the classroom was of high interest to me. Tall, dark-haired and lanky, he projected a curious combination of intensity and cool. His posture was relaxed, but his mind was focused. The issue at hand was always how to communicate effectively in writing. He didn’t have all the answers, but he did have questions. How might this scene be rendered so the reader feels he is part of it? How can your position on an issue be presented so the reader looks at it in a new light? There wasn’t one right answer or a single approach. Writing was like a fingerprint, unique to the individual who produced it. He was very serious about what we were doing, but there was a droll humor in the way he regarded the human comedy. After those first few weeks I relaxed. This was going to work out fine.
As assignments for his writing workshop, Fr. Becker would have us respond to the prompts of writing contests, and then would actually enter our most promising efforts in the contests. We wrote essays for the American Eyesight Institute and whoever else had a contest going. Well into the school year I was pleased to learn that the five hundred words I’d written on “The Space Age Challenge to America” for the local Ladies’ Auxiliary of the Veterans of Foreign Wars had won the second prize of $15. Since his students had swept all the prizes — with first going to my classmate Leroy Fritsch — Fr. Becker accompanied us and our guests to the Friday evening awards ceremony at a meeting room in the San Francisco Opera House.
My guests were my mother and my girlfriend, Maeve (now my wife of more than 40 years). We didn’t know what to expect. My mother, straight from a long day in a downtown billing office, was in a Thank-God-It’s-Friday mood, wanting nothing more than to unwind and relax. Maeve and I were hoping things would be short but sweet. We joined Fr. Becker on the street and went in to see what awaited us.
We were met in the hallway by a phalanx of six ladies in military outfits of a cut somewhere between the Girl Scouts and a guerilla band of Daughters of the American Revolution. Two ladies took each prizewinner securely by the arms. Then, the ornate doors of the meeting room were thrown open and we were summarily marched into a gallery of 50 or 60 uniformed ladies, who were clapping loudly to a Souza march on the phonograph. After being marched twice around the room, we were led to a platform upon which an elderly woman of commanding figure motioned us to our positions.
Grinning to keep from bursting into laughter, I searched the room for Maeve and my mother, and found them in the visitor’s gallery with Father Becker. Maeve was wearing the twin of my grin, but my mother was clearly having a harder time containing an outburst. I looked from them to Fr. Becker, who, cool as always, gave me a nod that said, “We can get through this. Hang in there.”
Things unfolded quickly. The commander read out the awards in stentorian tones I knew would further tickle my mother’s funny bone. “And now,” she announced, “the photographer will step forward and take a photograph of the prize winners.” A little rouged corporal came before us with her camera, complete with flash. My mother was doing a little dance to contain herself.
The camera was aimed. The corporal pushed the button, but nothing happened. She tried a second and a third time but nothing happened. At this point in the proceedings, mother had broken into a jig, Maeve’s smile was about to burst, and even Fr. Becker’s crooked smile was stretched to the limit.
The corporal adjusted the camera and tried yet again to snap the shot. Nothing. Finally the commander descended from the platform, brusquely took the camera, fiddled with it a few seconds, handed it back and returned to her place on the platform. “That should do it,” she said confidently.
Smile everyone,” said the corporal. I was smiling as broadly as I’d ever smiled in my life. She pushed the button. The camera exploded with a puff of white smoke. Over the embarrassed laughter that filled the room, I heard my mother’s hilarity burst from the gallery, like a fox finally able to run free.
As we stood in the street, decompressing before heading home, Fr. Becker smiled his crooked smile and shook his head. As a teacher, whose job was to civilize but not suppress the sensibilities of teenagers, he no doubt had witnessed comic vignettes in the yards and halls of St. Ignatius on a daily basis that rivaled the evening’s proceedings with the ladies’ auxiliary. You could see him rolling them around in his mind like a piece of candy. His humor had no hard edge, no ridicule. I’ve tried to maintain that same perspective.
In his 20 years at St. Ignatius, Fr. Becker deeply influenced writers such as Lawrence Yep ’66, whose fiction includes the Newbery Honor Book Dragonwings,and Peter Casey ’68, creator and producer of NBC’s Frasier. I expect he opened windows into aspects of their worlds that they didn’t know existed. That’s what he did for me. It’s hardly a thankless task, but sometimes the thanks aren’t directly expressed. Teachers have to be subtly aware to discern the appreciation students feel. I’m confident, from what I know of Fr. John Becker, that such discernment sweetened his task.
By the way, since I’m crediting Fr. Becker as my first writing teacher, it is germane to note that I went on to earn a doctoral degree in creative writing and to work as a writer and teacher of writing.