Mr. Kapanka

typewriterI want to give a giant shout out to Mr. Kapanka, my high school English teacher, for having a conversation with me that changed my life.  He had instructed the class to create an original fiction story and I, of course, waited until the night before it was due to start it.  I closed myself away in the basement of our parsonage in Cedar Falls, Iowa, and became one with the old typewriter my dad used to type out his sermon outlines.

I wasn’t a big reader, so I didn’t really know where to start.  So I created some characters I thought would be believable – like the kids I knew from school – and just went from there.  Once I got rolling, I felt as if something took over.  Words flowed line by line as the story unfolded in my mind.  I had the sensation that I was dictating a story that already existed in some other galaxy and my heart was finally able to transcribe it.  I emerged from the basement a few hours later holding my story, entitled “The Mystery of a Hero.”  I felt both exhausted and exhilarated that I had completed the assignment on time and had been touched by the thrill of inspiration.

A couple days later, Mr. Kapanka asked me to stay after class for a moment.  He was trying to be careful with his words as he held my story in his hands.  Here’s sort of how the conversation went…

Mr. K: “Emily, where did you get the idea for this story?”

Emily:  “I don’t know… I just thought of it.”

Mr. K:  “Seriously.  Who helped you?”

Emily:  “Umm…. what do you mean?”

Mr. K:  “Come on, Emily.  Do you expect me to believe that you just thought of this story without any help?”

Suddenly it dawned on me.  He thought I had plagiarized my English assignment!  I could feel my heart swelling up into my throat in panic, wondering how I could prove my innocence.  But while I turned white, I think maybe the look of surprise on my face told him that I wasn’t lying.

He analyzed my face then looked at my manuscript and said something I will never, ever forget… “This is REALLY good.  If you wrote this, you have a gift.  Do you realize that?”

I didn’t realize that.  My parents told me I was good, but I was convinced that they liked my work because they were sweet, supportive parents.  Maybe they were seeing with “parent-colored glasses.”  But Mr. Kapanka was neutral.  His opinion mattered to me.  Plus, he read classic literature and smart stuff that I knew nothing about at that point.

That conversation changed everything for me.  Although it took me years to call myself a writer, an underpaid high school English teacher named Tom Kapanka gave me the confidence to keep writing!  He also gave me my first deadline.  Today, countless deadlines later, I still go back to that moment as a turning point in my young, impressionable life.

I’ve tried to Google him to thank him but I can’t find him.  Surely he is out there somewhere.  If you know a Tom Kapanka who lived in Waterloo, Iowa, during the mid-eighties, please send him this link!  I wish so much that he could understand just how important that one conversation was to me and how weighted his words were in my mind.

After that conversation, not only did I view my love for words in a different light… I began to understand that doubt can be the start of unwavering belief.

6 thoughts on “Mr. Kapanka

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  1. Emily,

    I needed this today! Hello from across this more than 20 year gap in time and cyberspace!

    I remember this conversation. It may help all these years later to know that my opinion of you as a student was far too high to think you were lying, per se—I was trying to prevent the dilemma I had caused a student once before when I gave high praise to his story and unintentionally put him on a guilt trip because (as I later learned) the work was not his own.

    Looking back at it, I wince at the fact that I probed with such apparent suspicion, and I’m so happy that it was my initial scrutiny that gave weight to fact that I was truly impressed with your work. I’ll never forget the look in your eyes. You are right I was absolutely convinced it was your work and that it was good.

    I do understand how “compliments” from family about writing do not quite motivate as much as objectives critics. I still struggle with that myself.

    Of all the things you could remember from my class. I thank got this moment is at the top. You may recall that your class was full of “characters”–such an incredibly diverse group of 24 funny kids. We did have our moments as a group, but you were more often a spectator (or should I say “observant writer in waiting”) of some of the shenanigans of those who will remain nameless here but not forgotten.

    Those were the days. My wife and I remained close to so many in your class in the years that followed your move.

    You can’t imagine how meaningful it is to know that as a teacher I made a positive impact on you as a writer. I’m still in full-time Christian education. Now as an administrator not a teacher—at least not in the classroom all day. I also still write, and would be flattered if you visited Patterns of Ink. (I don’t use last names there, so Mr. K or Tom will be fine =).

    In May of 2006, I wrote a post about a teacher I had in high school.

    I’m smiling at my office desk as I type. Thank you so much for this shout out. I’ll try to email you some links to other posts of interest from our time in Waterloo.

    Mr. K

    P.S. By the way, I have an old typewriter like the one in your picture and use a similar picture at my Patterns of Ink Youtube site.


  2. Good teachers can make such a difference in one’s life. Thank goodness you were blessed to have such a teacher in your life. What a wonderful tribute!


  3. Great story, Emily, and Tom, I’m touched by the fact that you were able to see the fruits of your labor 20 years ago. I had a college professor who had that sort of impact on me, but not quite the dramatic turning point you made.

    I was that same sort of writer as Emily — sure, I can write. Can’t everybody? — but it wasn’t until I was 25 that I realized “Holy crap, not everybody can write!” Even then, it was a different college professor who pointed it out to me (unfortunately, I didn’t like him as much, so it seems to lessen the drama of the story. 😉 )


  4. I can remember sitting in Emily’s basement back in 1988 when she told me this story. I knew that Emily was an exceptional person who loved to write. But now after 19 years of marriage and seeing Emily’s tremendous impact and success as a writer, I am officially declaring myself as H.O.T.T.!…Husband of The Talent!

    I love you, babe!


  5. I’m not your teacher, but I am Tom Kapanka. Always interesting to search for yourself, and see who else is out there with the same name! Good luck finding Mr. Kapanka, the English Teacher.


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