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Great teachers and the difference they make

April 13, 2019 GMT

A universally loved film I have never liked is “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” (1986), partly because it portrays the teacher as a dull fool. To me, that image is cliché. I have had some great teachers and mentors along the way. This week, one of my favorite instructors, Eric Solomon, a professor emeritus from San Francisco State University, died in San Francisco. He was 90.

According to the San Francisco Gate, Eric Solomon was born in Boston in 1928, graduated from the Roxbury Latin School and held bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees from Harvard. He served in the U.S. Army, and in 1964 he moved to California and joined the faculty at what was then called San Francisco State College. I took English and American literature from him and found his input vital to studying the great writers while pursuing a degree in English. Eric Solomon was an expert on Steven Crane and was also a huge baseball fan. Solomon regarded the game as “a major assimilating force in American life.” Though he was a lifelong Boston Red Sox fan, he admired the San Francisco Giants.

“He was an activist in the best sense of the word,” said Stephen Arkin, a colleague and friend. “He believed the community could live up to its own best impulses.”

Solomon was active in the San Francisco State strike of 1968-1969 and joined us on the picket lines. To have a professor walking with students was a major factor. My father, who first suggested the striking students demanding an ethnic studies class get a “scholarship somewhere else,” changed his mind when the teachers went on strike. It became a union matter and, soon, other unions backed the striking students and professors. Eric Solomon helped in establishing the first ethnic studies program in the country.

I had a number of strong teachers at SF State. One was Herbert Wilner who told me I could write fiction, and another was Kay Boyle who bluntly told me I couldn’t. She complained I was too derivative and that I should especially avoid Hemingway whom she personally detested. Wallace Markfield, famous for a novel called “To an Early Grave,” read my creative work in progress and started every meeting with a simple phrase: “You got a novel going, here.”

I would ask the obvious question: “Is it a good novel or a bad novel?”

He would shrug, his eyes large behind horn-rimmed glasses. “It’s a novel. Huck Finn-ish — but in a good way.” He urged me to celebrate my annoying parents, research my Irish heritage and avoid Yiddish expressions that ran through his own work.

“You’re an Irishman, not a Jew. No Irishman would call another Irishman a schmuck.”

Eric Solomon wrote an insightful essay about Markfield’s sad but comic “To an Early Grave,” which became a film, “Bye Bye Braverman” (1968). Solomon was not my creative writing teacher but agreed to read one of my stories. He found echoes of other writers and politely suggested I had to find my own voice — essential to every writer’s journey.

In 1977 on Willie McCovey Day celebrating the legendary slugger, Eric Solomon addressed the audience at Candlestick Park:

“In an era of hard, financially aggressive, contract-minded athletes, Willie McCovey seems free, kind, warm, the way we like to think of San Francisco itself, a bit laid back. … Let New York have the brawling power of Babe Ruth, let Boston have the arrogant force of Ted Williams. Let us have the warm strength of Willie McCovey” (SF Gate, 2019).

Here was a versatile teacher, indeed, with a passion for literature and baseball.

Michael Corrigan of Pocatello is a San Francisco native and a retired Idaho State University English and speech communication instructor. He studied screenwriting at the American Film Institute and has authored seven books, many about the Irish American experience.