Back to Blog

Teaching and Learning from Dave Eggers

Dave Eggers and Peter FSMALL
Photo Credit: Doug Hesse (Photo from the 2015 Annual Convention)

The following post was sent to us by Peter Ferry who taught English at Lake Forest High School for twenty-seven years. Dave Eggers was one of his students. 

When I taught Dave Eggers during his sophomore year at Lake Forest High School near Chicago, did I know that he would go on to do great things? Not really. I knew he had a special mind, but you know that about several kids every year. Not many of them do with theirs what Dave has done with his. How has he done it? It seems to me, if you will allow me to extrapolate, that he has followed a few simple rules.

  1. Be goofy. Dave likes to say that in high school, he wasn’t popular with girls because he had zits and his “name sounded like food.” I don’t know about that, but I do know that he wasn’t afraid to be a little nerdy, to sometimes spend his lunch hour in our first computer lab. He says that that’s where he learned the desktop publishing skills he used to start Might magazine a few years later, and Might launched his career. That Dave didn’t care very much about being cool is, of course, ironic because today he is a kind of rock star.
  2. Be loyal. In high school Dave had lots of friends, and twenty-five years later he still does, and many of them are the same people. It seemed for a while every time I called McSweeney’s, a different voice would say, “Hi, Mr. Ferry. Remember me? I was in your so-and-so class.” Finally I asked, “How many of you guys from Lake Forest High School are out there in San Francisco working with Dave?” The answer was eighteen. I find that quite astonishing, and I think it is important in understanding everything Dave does, which is always more about people than about ideas.
  3. Listen to your elders.One of these was my mentor and Dave’s junior English teacher, Jay Criche, who wrote on one of his papers, “You should be a writer.” Hmmm. Dave hadn’t thought of that. Another voice which Dave heard was that of our colleague Dave Hawkins, who, when Eggers was publishing Might in the early nineties, wrote to him, “Don’t you guys ever get tired of making fun of things?” This led to some soul searching on the staff and ultimately a change in editorial direction. But maybe the best piece of advice we offered Dave was the standard English teacher one: “Write what you know.” When Dave’s parents died during his junior year in college, leaving Dave’s thirteen-year-old brother for him and his siblings to rear, Dave wrote about it in the sassy, irreverent, never maudlin, and always original Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius that became an international bestseller.
  1. But also, don’t listen to your elders.One of these was me. In our public speaking class, I gave an assignment for a persuasive speech which invited kids to pontificate. Dave didn’t do it. Instead, he tried to persuade his classmates to join him on a bike ride to the center of the earth, his main selling point being that it would be mostly downhill. I didn’t penalize him for not taking my assignment seriously and gave him an “A” for creativity. Dave thinks I treated him with respect and good humor, and that’s where our relationship began. I’d like to say that I was his mentor, and maybe I was . . . briefly, but in truth, he’s become mine. He has been very supportive and helpful in my late-blooming writing career. And there’s the loyalty thing again. Dave, above all else, is true to people. But even more important than not listening to me, Dave didn’t listen to his elders who said, “This writing stuff is all well and good in high school, but look, you’re going to have to put food on the table.” The result is that Dave Eggers is changing the world.
  1. Which brings us to, don’t put your profits up your nose.Dave certainly hasn’t. Instead, he started a bookstore, a publishing house, one of the best literary journals in the country, a network of nonprofit tutoring centers in cities around the country, and a foundation to support education reform.
  2. Also, keep on working. I cannot read as fast as Dave Eggers writes. His output makes my head spin. But it also makes me think of another goofball named Pete Hanrahan who was elected senior class president as a joke but fell in love with learning in college and used to come back to talk to my senior classes. Once, when a kid asked him how many hours a week he had to study, Pete answered, “If you find what you love to do, the question is ‘how many hours in a week do you get to study.’” Dave Eggers loves what he does.
  3. And don’t look back. Dave doesn’t read his notices or reviews because by the time they’re posted, he’s already moved on. I know this because I read some of his stuff in manuscript, and I know that he’s always three steps ahead of the rest of us. That’s why people never say of his new book, “Good old Dave. You always know what you’ll get with an Eggers.” Instead, we say, “What the heck? What’s he up to now? I don’t get it.” That’s how I felt about The Circle the first time I read it. Now a week doesn’t go by that I don’t say, “There it is! There’s The Circle.”

So where do we as Dave’s teachers come into all of this? We don’t much. I think we knew enough to encourage rather than discourage, to recognize that genius doesn’t come in a can but grows in a garden, to be honest, respectful, amused, impressed, and appreciative, and mostly to stay out of Dave’s way. But I am going to brag just a little. Dave once said that the six best teachers he ever had were at Lake Forest High School. We are very, very proud of that.

Peter Ferry has written two novels: Travel Writing (2008) and Old Heart (2015).