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THE MUSINGS OF DR. B

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Some day soon, the infamous Dr. B, the Zen Poet, the former litterateur Mr. Electric, will retire from Catonsville High School and become merely Gary Blankenburg again. Freed from the cult of his own personality, he will finger his stringy beard, pack up his pop art, take the stairs to the lobby downstairs and smoke his last cigar.

He, of the hernia, the deviated septum, arthritic ankles, high blood pressure, cataracts, acid reflux, depression and tumors of the esophagus, will think it's time to fish.

He will think the time has come, once again, to make good with his Maker.

He will consider his death, a favorite theme.

But when he goes home this time, it will be for good. After so many years as a teacher - 32 here, nine at other schools - Dr. B will be retired, free of the bonds he came to love.

"Forty-one years," he muttered one morning on the elevator to his first-period class.

"Congratulations, Dr. Blankenburg!" said the family studies teacher, pondering her own retirement.

"Fifty-one more days," he replied. "You'll know when your time comes."

He actually started to disappear a couple of years ago. After persuading the principal to hire a lovely young poet to replace him, he gave up the literary magazine and creative-writing classes. He gave up Room 316, his arena for the last 28 years. He quit smoking cigars in the faculty lounge.

"Is Dr. Blankenburg here?" the office secretary would ask, peering out the window for the teacher's big, bad, baby blue Cadillac DeVille. But Dr. B had traded it for a practical Volvo, a retired man's car that blends safely into traffic.

His overstuffed green chair, covered with duct tape, sometime home to a family of mice, had vanished, too. Into the Dumpster! Few are left who recall the day some boys picked it up with Dr. B casually anchored and hauled them outdoors for a one-act play. No one could remember how well the bemused poet, in mirrored sunglasses and a Hawaiian shirt, carried off his role as "God" - a non-speaking part he performed with supreme indifference.

No one was left who could remember so much. He had outlasted English department chairs and principals, football coaches and janitors.

And even now, as his own memory wavered, he, too, felt deserted by words, emptied of confessions, confused by the effort to match names and dates. He felt devoid of the once endless stream of intemperate tales of his wanton youth, wrecked marriages, beery failures and deeply atoning middle age.

The poet was a recovering alcoholic. A mentor who launched careers. A teacher whose passions infected a school. "Letting go is liberating," he'd say. "But letting go of this job is scary."

The Zen Poet was passing. Mr. Electric was dead. Gary Blankenburg sensed his storied career fading into the void.

He had arrived in Maryland from Illinois with a bachelor's degree in 1963 and taught high school in Sparrows Point. He hated it. He went back to Illinois for a master's degree, then returned to teach at what was then Towson State College.

But Blankenburg was an alcoholic by then. If he did not drink, he had seizures. He drank. Towson fired him.

He got a job grooming horses and began a master's program at Johns Hopkins. Eventually, he entered a Ph.D. program at the University of Delaware, expecting he'd become a professor, a novelist, a scholar in 17th-century British literature.

Instead, he left the stables, taught for a while at a private boys school, married and went into debt. He continued to drink. Dropped out of the Ph.D. program. Entered detox. In 1972, he came to Catonsville High School, where slowly, over time, the job forced him to face the demons that infested his life.

"My perceptions were all crazy," he said recently, reflecting on his career. "Maybe it was the combination of getting beaten up by my addiction and having to earn a living this way. But what little humility I had, I gained because I had to teach at the high school.

"I was very arrogant. I wanted to be a college professor - for all the wrong reasons. Ego. Pride. I needed to feel intellectually superior. I also thought I would be a novelist, although I knew nothing about writing novels. It was part of this persona I was pursuing. ... I resented teaching and felt like what I was doing was really beneath me. I was not nice to be around."

Blankenburg left his first wife and married a woman who would become a college English professor. They had a child, and she helped him earn his doctorate at Carnegie Mellon University while he continued to teach at Catonsville.

"I don't think I could have even finished the dissertation without her," Blankenburg said. "I liked the research. I loved the reading. But I had no idea how to organize the work. ... Thankfully, my wife was a lot smarter than me, and she could see how it all fit together."

With the degree, he started calling himself Dr. Blankenburg. And yet he was a Ph.D. with no real publications and no great distinction. He had taught high school for 12 years. He had suffered alcoholic relapses. No college he applied to offered an interview. For his efforts, Blankenburg earned a $500 raise at Catonsville, then his wife left him.

So this is where the story begins. The infamous Dr. B, the former litterateur Mr. Electric, the Zen Poet did not exist until 1984, when the failed would-be professor and novelist awoke to a past of destructive egotism and self-imposed failures.

"It was one thing to think you were superior to your job, but another thing entirely to realize, at the same time, that you don't even know how to do your job," he said. "All of sudden, I could see that something was seriously wrong. And what was wrong was me."

Would you like to see a little pain?

Here's something I just put on

to wear around the house. I've had it

for years & years. Isn't it dreadful?

Thus he began writing "A Comic History of My Pain," and then he wrote some more. And wrote and wrote.

In one collection, Adventures of Mr. Electric, he purged nightmares, confessed fears, groaned for love. In another, The Illustrated Zen Poet, he killed off Mr. Electric and declared himself reborn, in a sense, vowing "to remain vigilant and never ever again to be in velvet."

He became poetry editor of the Catonsville Times, helped found the Maryland Poetry Review and, finally turning his heart to teaching, became "Dr B." - the mentor, teacher and confidante many will now remember forever.

Maryland poet laureate Michael Collier remembers getting a phone call from Blankenburg in the mid-'80s, before he'd published his first book. Dr. B, at last reaching out to the world, wanted one of his poems to publish in the newspaper.

Over the years Blankenburg would call Collier for other reasons - to speak to his students, to invite him to their readings, to ask him to read at events sponsored by the high school literary magazine. Some of Blankenburg's students later became published writers, and Collier would meet them at the Breadloaf Writers' Conference, where he is director. Some, Collier noticed, were graduates of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, perhaps the best graduate writing program in the country.

"I can't think of another place like Catonsville High School, where so many students have gone on to Iowa," Collier said. "In some cases, Gary has not only given students a way to pursue the dream of becoming writers, but by helping them earn scholarships, he's given them a way to pay for their education."

Bradley Paul, now a Towson University writing teacher, won a full four-year undergraduate scholarship under Blankenburg in 1990 and eventually went to Iowa for his master's degree. He will remember Dr. B, he said, more as mentor than as teacher.

"He was one of the first adults who I felt wasn't lying to me," said Paul. "He didn't try to sell you a picture that a lot of high school teachers do of this great life that awaits everyone. He was brutally honest. When it became obvious that you were serious about writing poetry, he would say, 'Nobody reads poetry - it's not this delicate little flower that everyone cherishes. You'll be mostly ignored, you'll end up taking a job in publishing or teaching and no one will pay you a dime for your poetry.' "

Odd inspiration, perhaps. But Blankenburg also nurtured the dream and led Paul fearlessly on the first difficult steps toward a career.

"I came from an alcoholic family," Paul said. "And when Dr. Blankenburg and I talked about that, it wasn't like something you get in a health class, it wasn't a lecture, and it wasn't like talking to other alcoholics I've known, who sometimes tell their stories with a certain relish."

Blankenburg pressed his student to better the old Zen Poet, to outclass his mentor. When Paul's family expressed dismay that Paul might leave Catonsville for college, Blankenburg gauged an unhealthy co-dependence and encouraged Paul to take the full scholarship he had helped him win to a noted writing program at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga.

"He would call me at night and say, 'Have you filled out your application? Have you sent off your work?' " Paul remembered. "I would say, 'Yes,' and he would say, 'You're lying to me.' Of course, I was lying, and he knew it."

But soon, Paul was off to Tennessee, taking individual writing instruction from people like Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Philip Levine, and later at Iowa taking courses with students from places like Harvard and Yale.

"I think any kid is lucky to have someone like this in his life," said Paul, who will publish his first poetry collection this fall. "But to be a kid from an abusive household where adults are jealous of any success you have, to have a guy like this say, 'You're smart, you can do anything you want' - well, for me, it was unprecedented."

Catherine Wagner, Catonsville class of '87, teaches at Boise State University in Idaho, where she is about to publish her second collection of poems. Also a graduate of Iowa and now married to the poet Martin Corless-Smith, she remembers the early inspiration of Blankenburg, the teacher who created an alternate universe where young artists could be taken as seriously as any star athlete or scholar.

"He made his classroom different from any other space in the school," Wagner recalled. "He had it chock full of plants and set up desks in a horseshoe so we could face each other and talk. And we papered his room with our rejection slips from poetry journals and magazines."

While Dr. B was editing the Maryland Poetry Review, Wagner and her friends stuffed envelopes and designed covers. He signed them up for public appearances, and encouraged Wagner at her first reading at a Unitarian church in Baltimore.

For a few students, she said, Blankenburg claimed a roomy closet in the school, cleaned it up, stationed a desk by a window, populated the room with books, installed an old typewriter and tacked odd postcards to the walls. He made them an office. A private lair for poets.

Wagner was one of the room's first inhabitants.

"I didn't even have a space like that at home!" she said. "It became a healthy way to escape from the high school world, which could be a nightmarish place. Whenever I had a free period, I could go to this office and read all these books. I could shut the door and write."

Blankenburg's classes, the school's literary magazine, the readings, the writers' closet, rose to a kind of cult status. He had created an oasis. For some, it became cool to join the school's writing collective. For others, it was a mode for managing adolescent despair.

"At most high schools, there aren't a bunch of writers you can hang out with," Paul said. "But he took us seriously, and it was very liberating."

"We were," Wagner said, simply, "really proud to be writers."

All over town, people remember Gary Blankenburg. You will find them working at the library, serving customers at the coffee shop. They are writing novels, posting their poems on the Internet.

Some, like Millie Bentley-Memon, class of '86, have children and are close to earning doctoral degrees. Some, like Laurel Snyder, class of '92, have moved away, earned degrees and have not yet published their first books. But, like Snyder, they will proudly say, with fine Blankenburgian humor, "I have an MFA in poetry - can I take your order?" They wear their indifference to the quotidian world proudly, just as he would have them do.

"It's important to say that I am where I am because I took a creative writing class in high school," said Snyder, who works at the University of Iowa and writes poetry. "And it happened because Gary Blankenburg made it happen. In the end, he changed my life."

Recently, Moira Egan, the poet now directing the creative writing program at Catonsville, wrote a poem for Dr. B. When she took the job, she said, Blankenburg told her not to let the job become another Mr. Holland's Opus, meaning she should not sacrifice everything to be a teacher or students' mentor. She should be a poet, above all else. It echoed advice he has always given his best students: Devotion to the art comes first; your work should overshadow me.

So Egan tried to express her gratitude to him through her poem. She surprised him with it at a joint reading for students one morning. But she kept breaking down in tears, and could not finish it without help.

Old Blankenburg mumbled a short statement of gratitude, read a couple of his poems and shuffled back to teach a world literature class.

Attention embarrasses him. Sentiment is highly suspect.

As a man of words, for someone who has spent great amounts of time lecturing and instructing over the past 41 years, he has become amazingly quiet at age 63. He has no grand plans for retirement, other than to maintain a loving life with his current wife, a librarian. There is no novel in his future.

He will say only that he is going to Biloxi, Miss., for a few weeks this summer to do some fly-fishing. He might gamble a little. Smoke a few cigars.

What happens next is a question for storytellers and poets.

And Gary Blankenburg has decided to leave that one for his students.

Gary Blankenburg

Born: March 23, 1941, Decatur, Ill.

Education: B.S. 1963 Illinois State University, M.S. 1965 Illinois State University, M.L.A. 1973 the Johns Hopkins University, D.A. 1983 Carnegie Mellon University

Awards: 1991 Presidential Teacher of the Year for Maryland; 1997 Catonsville Rotary Club Teacher of the Year

Books: Fish & Flowers, 1983; A Comic History of My Pain, 1989; Adventures of Mr. Electric, 1990; The Illustrated Zen Poet, 1994; The Heartland, 1996; At the Edge of Beauty, 2001; Dancing with Strangers (Electric Press, 2005)

Favorite poet: W.D. Snodgrass

Favorite quotation: "I am that final thing, a man learning how to sing." (Theodore Roethke)

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