I could tell you this story without mentioning God, and it would still be a pretty good story. But God’s kind of why this story happened in the first place, so it would be silly to leave him on the cutting room floor.
The other morning, I was reading my bible and praying, coffee in hand, which is how I start every morning. (Marky-) Mark Wahlberg starts every day with prayer, so I’m in good company (though his day starts at 3:30 AM and I’m not quite that ambitious).
All I know is that when I start the day remembering Whose I am, and that this life isn’t just about me, it makes me less of a jerk face, and the world a little better. Everybody wins.
I had just finished up and opened my laptop to my current manuscript. As I jumped into edits for the day, I was still talking to Him, so naturally, I started talking to Him about my edits. Often as I write a story, I use “place holder” names for characters. For example, I’ll need a name for a bartender, so I’ll pick the first name that pops in my head. My friend Steve was a bartender, so I’ll call the bartender “Steve.” But as the story develops and I flesh out the character, I’ll often name him or her something else that’s more fitting. In this story, there’s an AP Lit teacher, so I had given him the name of my high school AP Lit teacher, Mr. Kucan. I was not trying to channel the real Mr. Kucan, but I’ll admit, I used him as a springboard.
Mr. Kucan was the hardest teacher I’ve ever had (including all my undergrad and graduate teachers). Maybe my memory is tainted by my poor work ethic in eleventh grade, but holy stress balls, Mr. Kucan was no joke. Twenty SAT vocab words a week, one classic novel every month, a book test and an in-class essay every month, those damn analogies, textbook readings with quizzes, essays essays essays, and that’s just the stuff I remember. I barely pulled a C in his class, and I think he was being generous.
I had no business being in AP Brit Lit. I believe I was placed there because I was a creative writer, not necessarily a good technical writer. Often his notes on my essays said, “Great writing. Completely off topic.” He was sarcastic, scary, and brilliant. I remember on one essay, he wrote, “This is a topic sentence. Where’s your thesis?” There was a difference?! I must’ve missed that day in Freshman Comp, and for sure, no one in AP Lit would dare ask such a remedial question. I pictured how he would shake his head at me or raise an eyebrow if I asked. No way. And back then, I didn’t have the internet or Alexa to spit out the answer. So I fumbled my way through every assignment, barely scraping by, and slouching in the back, terrified Mr. Kucan would call on me and I’d be exposed for the fraud I was. Haha. So dramatic, but come on, weren’t we all in high school?
Honestly, I cheated my way through half of his class. I only read two of the ten assigned novels. I made friends with the smart kids, sat directly behind them, and conveniently looked over their shoulders during quizzes. But I wasn’t snaking the answers. They were more than happy to slide their test into my line of sight, which in retrospect, makes me slap my forehead at myself. What a mooch!
But here’s the thing. Those two books I did actually read in his class? Dracula by Bram Stoker and The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh. They revolutionized my mindset towards literature. I was captivated. Old books could actually be interesting? And creepy? And funny? After college, when my brain decided to catch up, I read the other eight books. I was finally doing my eleventh grade homework! Haha. Kucan did something else significant that I only realized years later. He dropkicked my work habits right off the lazy train. Yeah, I cheated in that class. But the other half — the half where I had to work my arse off just to pull a C — that was all me, and that was all new. It was easy to work hard on the soccer field. But behind a desk? He taught me that sometimes I was going to have to work tirelessly, whether I felt like it or not.
Welcome to real life. People are bullies. Work deadlines don’t bend because of internet glitches or boyfriend breakups. And if you feel like doing average work, you don’t get an average grade. You get replaced. So those teachers who I remember as being kind of bullies? They’re often my favorites now.
Back to my edits. I was finally ready to replace Kucan’s name. His character and his scenes were complete. I tried some other names, but they didn’t “fit.” Like I said, I was chatting with God at the time. I told God that I kind of wanted to keep Kucan’s name as a tribute to him, but I didn’t want him to think this hard-nose teacher character was actually him.
I had thought of trying to contact Mr. Kucan many times. Maybe he had an email. In the past few months, I had Kucan on the brain a lot. But why did it matter so much? That’s what I kept asking God. Other character names didn’t trip me up like this. I looked up random faculty names from a high school website. Frustrated but needing to move forward, I penned an email to someone I knew — he had a name that would work — asking permission to use his name for this teacher character. But I didn’t send it. Something stopped me. Lately, I’ve been trying to rein in my impulsivity. Taking a step back. Praying. Giving God some space to work, and not stealing all His thunder. “Why can’t I get this off of my mind today?” I asked Him. I was fixated on it. So for the first time, I did a Google search with some specific words alongside Kucan’s name, and wouldn’t you know it… his phone number was the first thing that popped up.
“This is crazy,” I told God, dialing the number, and feeling a little foolish. A lot foolish. “I’m trusting You on this one.”
A man answered on the third ring.
“May I please speak to Kenneth Kucan?”
“This is he,” Mr. Kucan answered, very hesitantly.
From there, I told him who I was and when I had had him as a teacher.
“Well, it’s been a while,” he said in that dry humor I remembered. I laughed. It definitely had been a minute.
I felt this crazy amount of gratitude for him as an educator, and I told him why. I explained how I was quite possibly his worst student, and yet owed a lot to him. I giggled at the irony of how I cheated my way through AP Lit, and then went on to become an AP Lit teacher. I told him about the two books I did read in his class. When I mentioned The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh, he kindly interjected.
“Actually, when it’s a guy, the name is pronounced “EE-valyn.”
“See? You’re STILL teaching me things!”
“There’s this AP Lit teacher character, and I’d love to name him Mr. Kucan, kind of as a tribute to you. But he’s such a tough nut.”
He uproariously laughed and said, “I’d be flattered.”
We went on to have the most delightful conversation, and finally it was time to wrap things up. “You know,” he started, “I almost didn’t answer my phone. I didn’t recognize the number. Usually it’s some robo machine recording. I have no idea why I decided to answer today, but I’m so grateful that I did. You see, today is my 84th birthday, and this has been a wonderful gift.”
I looked up at God and smiled. Of all the 365 days this year, and the multiple times I had thought of contacting Mr. Kucan, after praying and not being able to get him out of my head, I picked today to call. Sometimes God doesn’t relent, and it’s for a good reason. Maybe me feeling like a fool was worth it to make someone else feel like a king. Most of the time, I miss those moments because I’m trying to make things work my way or I’m too caught up in staring at my own belly button. But today, thanks to God, I looked up.
I’m attaching my follow-up email and his response. Hope it blesses you as much as it blessed me. We’re all fools at some point, so we might as well be fools for God.
Hello, Mr. Kucan! It was so wonderful to hear your voice again and reconnect with a teacher who played a significant role in who I was as an educator and who I am today as a writer. I think you'll get such a kick out of the teacher character in my upcoming book, CHASING AFTER KNIGHT, who I am going to re-name "Mr. Kucan." He isn't you, and when I fleshed out this character, I wasn't trying to channel you, but there may be some "Kucan fingerprints" that land on him. :) You were far nicer but just as intimidating. Haha.
Anyway, happy birthday, and thank you so much for taking my call (even though you thought I might be a telemarketer). What luck that you answered!
I am terribly sorry about your wife's death. You've been fortunate to have many wonderful memories, but it's still hard. From watching my own parents and their love for each other (which only strengthens every year), I've learned that no matter how many years you spend together, it's never enough if it's the person you love.
It sounds as though you are well surrounded with great friends and family, though. I love that you're still involved in the theater, which, to me, is like 3D literature. You once said in class (something along the lines of) that Shakespeare was meant to be watched in person and not read silently. I was bored out of my eyeballs by Shakespeare and thought you were nuts. Then in college, I heard of the Shakespeare Festival in Cedar City, Utah, and I remembered what you had said, so I asked my mom if we could go. And you were right, doggone it! Haha. My whole perspective on Shakespeare (and live theater!) was transformed. The facial expressions and blocking played a huge role in my comprehension in the beginning, but all action aside, I was blown away by how much I understood of this "foreign language" once I was immersed in it. For years following, my mom and I would take our annual trip and watch all six plays they produced. So, thanks for that! Anyway, all that to say I'm thrilled that you're still involved in the production of live theater. There's nothing quite like it.
If you send me a mailing address, I'd love to send you a copy of my first book, BEYOND THE BREAK. It's YA (young adult) Contemporary Romance, but it's also a great surf story, and you'll blow through it in a day. I'd love to give you the back story of what the publisher at Penguin Random House was looking for, but I'd rather not give any spoilers and let you read the book for what it is. I'll tell you all about it afterwards!
Again, thanks for the great convo! Made my whole day.
Happy 84th Birthday!
All my best,