The Teachers Who Knew Me Best Mattered Most

If you know me you know that I love to write. I also love to work at a school. On good days, these two passions line up, feed one another, intertwine like flames in a fireplace.

So when I remember my education, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I can point to a handful of moments where teachers helped me understand writing as a key part of my identity. I’m not saying they all made the best moves at the best moments — a teacher once ripped me out of a chair by my collar because I was doodling with words — but I do think I’ve been pretty lucky in terms of the people I bumped into along my sometimes public (K – 8) sometimes private (9 – 16) schooling.

I remember writing a story in 3rd grade. It was called, “Time to Go to Bed, Oh Rats!”  When I was writing this story, the process itself grabbed me. I didn’t write the story; the story wrote me. I could see the story in my mind, and I knew exactly which words I was supposed to use as I worked the story — as the story worked me — toward completion. It didn’t matter that I was doing an assignment for school, that I was doing homework instead of shooting baskets. I was getting the words right. In that moment, that mattered. It was all I could see of the world.

I turned in the assignment, and a few days later, my teacher pulled me aside. She told me my story was good — made sure I knew it was good. She said, “you’ve really done something here.” She met my eyes even when I tried to look everywhere, anywhere, else.

Then, a few years later, I lost my way. It’s funny to say that because I was only in fifth or sixth grade, but that’s what happened. Again I had to write a story, and this time I was trying to impress a friend. He was tough, hated school, hilarious, and the reason my teacher had written home that “Steve is hanging around with the wrong crowd.” I wrote a story about two young boys who got ahold of a fast car and played football and skipped school. When I showed my wayward muse some lines before turning it in, he laughed — but not that hard — and then punched me in the arm.  I felt sore, but I wasn’t sure which punch made me feel that way.

I turned in the assignment and forgot about it until my teacher pulled me aside. I smiled to myself and started to blush a little bit; I knew this routine; I braced myself for the praise that would follow. But it never followed. This teacher had apparently looked at my writing from the previous grades and even chatted with some of my previous teachers . . . and she basically told me that I hadn’t improved, that I had let her down, that I had let myself down. I remember feeling a sense of shame. That’s the only word for it. I had taken something that was really important and special to me, my writing, and I had compromised it in order to be cool.

A few years later, another teacher pulled me aside and told me that I should go to a creative writing conference coming up at a local school. To apply, I had to submit a collection of poems. I was writing a lot at that point, trying my hand at sonnets and assorted rhyming verse. I was accepted to the conference, and during my one-on-one meeting with the director, he told me I shouldn’t use rhymes in my poems because modern poets didn’t use rhymes in their poems. He went on to quote and talk about a handful of poets I had never heard of and trashed my (then) heroes, Frost and Dickinson and Blake.

I went back to my own school the next day and didn’t mention any of this exchange to my teacher; in fact I didn’t even acknowledge that I had been to the conference. I was embarrassed and thought I had failed my teacher in some way. She believed in me. She picked me. She sent me to a poetry conference and the man who ran it, the man who had his name on the program, didn’t like my poetry.

Sure enough, a few days later, she asked me about the conference. I put my head down and mumbled. Luckily, this teacher was spunky and even a little mischievous (we knew this even then) and I remember her telling me, with no hesitation and pure confidence, to forget the director. He was entitled to his opinion, but he was just one person. She liked my poems and she thought I should keep doing my own thing, regardless of what the “directors of the universe” (she really spoke like this) thought of it. Afterwards, she wrote me a lovely note — in rhyming verse.

I no longer write in rhyming verse, but when I get the words right, when some crackle of life yips from a sentence I type, I often remember these three teachers. They took the time to work with me outside the curriculum, beyond the grade, in the nooks and crannies of time that can be really hard to find in a packed school day. They took the time to say, to make me know, this is your thing, that’s not your thing, keep doing your thing.

I’m proud to work in a school that recently rewrote its Mission Statement to include this line: “Our faculty’s deep and genuine understanding of our students as individuals and as learners fosters their ethical development, intellectual growth and personal success.” I continue to derive great joy from a near-daily writing practice. Teachers of mine, who had a deep and genuine understanding of me, gave me this gift.  I doubt anything in my education has mattered more.

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