I grew up in Milford Michigan, a small farm town on the outskirts of the outskirts of the outskirts of Detroit, past where I-96 is no longer interesting and everything starts to look a little older, rustier and more worn out. It was way off the beaten path. But it was an excellent place to grow up. Lots of hay fields in which to romp. Plenty of football fields and little league baseball fields too.
If you’re looking for a motif here, it might be the word “fields.”
Of course, when we got older, those same fields made ideal settings for gatherings dotted with kegs of beer. When I saw the movie “Dazed and Confused”, which was supposed to be about a 70’s-era Austin Texas high school, I was dazed and confused because it looked exactly like Milford during the 80’s.
Apparently we were all a full 10 years behind the times.
Like the great poet Mad Max once said “… my memories fade.” I still keep in touch with the old gang and get back to Milford when I can, which is not often since I live in the Philippines.
But along with life-long friendships, Milford stays with me daily for one very specific reason. I do a lot of writing now: client-facing scripts, treatments and creative briefs, as well as internal company directives. It’s how I make a living. Writing is something I do every single day. And every day as I’m plowing towards a deadline or trying to sketch out an idea, I think of a man with the unlikely name of Valentine “Val” Kurmaniak.
Milford High School may have been the “boonies” as our snobbish preppy Birmingham rivals loved to point out, but I would argue MHS had one of the finest English teachers in the state of Michigan.
Mr. Kurmaniak was not a wannabe Robin Williams and we didn’t stand on the desks and recite “Captain, my Captain.” No frustrated stand-up comedian, he was taskmaster. He was not there to win Oscars, charm students or make you giggle.He was not fucking around.
His entire goal was to teach you how to write. And he was damn good at it.
This, needless to say, was a thankless gig in early 80’s Milford. We were not exactly a prep school and most of the students had their eyes on the weekend keggers or the Judas Priest concert in the city. Not many were stressing much about what they wanted to be when they grew up. And if they were, it’s a good bet it had very little to do with writing.
But I had a dark secret. Something I hid from my rowdy, beer drinking football buddies.
I loved to write.
I sensed from a young age I was going to probably make a living putting words together. My parents had exposed me to Hemingway and I had figured out that writing, if done about about killing bulls or fishing or war, could actually be ...cool. Journalism? Non-fiction? The next Kerouac? I hadn’t worked it out yet.
I just liked writing.
When I was in junior high school, we were told to write a “topic paper” to evaluate us for high school placement. I wrote mine on the making of ‘Apocalypse Now”, which had come out a few years earlier. With a frayed copy of Eleanor Coppola’s book “Notes” which I had borrowed/stolen from my big brother Scott and lots of hours at the microfiche machine, I was able to recount the story of this legendary production in gripping detail (I thought), years before the tale became the basis of the classic documentary “Hearts of Darkness.”
My junior high teacher, Mr. Le Clerc (who was also a fine teacher) thought I was semi-nuts for picking such a weird topic. I was 13. But he couldn’t deny the quality of the writing and I got an "A+" and a big fat pass on the notoriously tedious Freshman English class requirement.
I was ecstatic. High school was gonna be easy!
Until I heard what my reward was for this little literary end-around: Mr. Kurmaniak’s class.
Even to junior high kids, Mr. Kurmaniak had a legendary reputation as a sort of Sith Lord of English. Tall, thin, pale, and some might say, a little bit scary. Now not only was I in his class, I was the only freshman surrounded by mostly snickering Juniors and Seniors, learning the ins and outs of “Kurmaniak’s Killers”, his list of deadly English grammar sins.
This was by far the most intense classroom setting I’d ever experienced. The man cared about his subject passionately and demanded that you at least respect what he was teaching. 30 years later, I get it. He knew it mattered.
As for me? Weirdly, I loved it.
The more I listened to him speak about the intricacies of grammar, the more I began to realize I was learning from a Master. He stressed wonderful truisms likeclarity of expression and learning the rules before you’re allowed to break them.I wrote it down and ate it up.
I also became more and more intrigued with the man behind the teacher, convinced he was toying with his Vader shtick purely to get results. As yearbook editor, I had seen a photo with him and his wife and kids. They were all making amazingly funny faces to the camera. Just filled with joy and energy. I couldn’t match it up with his dour and serious classroom demeanor.
Which made me respect him all the more. He was playing a role.
I remember once passing his office during a lunch break and seeing him sitting alone, reading a book ... and smoking. He was a serious smoker, and back then a teacher could smoke in their own offices (or did I dream this?). I stopped and watched him read. He was totally wrapped up in whatever the story was.
He looked up, as if sensing I was there. When he saw me, he broke into a wide smile, took a drag, gave me a quick nod, then went back to his book. In that moment, the guy was cool. I knew it was all an act.
I sometimes wish I had knocked on his door that day and asked him what he was reading. I had heard rumors he was a former minister. Maybe it was the Bible -- but my guess he was reading Vonnegut or Bukowski. Something edgy but funny.
Throughout the years, I made sure I always got into his class. When asked why, all I could muster was “I’m learning stuff” and move on. It was true and nothing more needed to be said.
My senior year of high school, Mr. Kurmaniak died of a heart attack. I cried a bit at his funeral, particularly when my buddy Ken Nelson, who was a trumpet player in the high school band, played a slow beautiful version of “The Victors”, the University of Michigan fight song.
I went on to major in English and film at the University of Michigan. I stopped bothering to defend myself on the usefulness of an English degree or the importance of knowing how to write well. I just kept writing my way around life’s roadblocks and didn't look back. I even got paid for it.
30 years after my graduation from high school, knowing how to write has never been more important. The information age crashed down like an avalanche and the job market needs those who have the skills to communicate ideas. Writers are in demand.
Clarity - the focal point of my high school teacher's lessons - is now coin of the realm. The world finally caught up with Mr. Kurmaniak.
Now, as I have done hundreds of times, I will re-read this, searching for (and likely missing) Kurmaniak’s Killers, knowing that even if I don’t catch my own boneheaded mistakes, he sure as hell would have.