It’s day two of Teacher Appreciation Week. Yesterday I was thinking about third grade and the two great teachers I worked with that year. I noted that the haven I found in that classroom was short-lived, that I found myself in a very different kind of classroom the following year.
The next important teacher for me was my English teacher in my last year of high school. Yes, the gap is that big: third grade and then skip ahead to senior year. It’s a long way, but it could have been longer, so I’ll count myself lucky.
Skipping to senior year is particularly interesting because I had that English teacher, Mr. DeBlois, for ninth grade English, too. He wasn’t a bad teacher in ninth grade — though I will admit that all I remember about that class is being made to watch the film adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” followed by In Cold Blood, and having to fight my way through The Old Man and the Sea.
I cannot remember who I had for English in 10th grade, so that was clearly a scintillating experience. I had a pretty awful but ultimately easy 11th grade English class and then back to Mr. DeBlois for senior year.
What made the difference in my experience between 9th and 12th grade? It’s surely true that Mr. DeBlois went through some changes of his own in that time, but the primary change was me.
I started writing “for real” when I was about 11 years old, started showing my writing to other people when I was 12. Back then, I was pretty certain I was a poet. I wrote a lot of poetry. Correction: I wrote a lot of painfully, aggressively BAD poetry. A lot. But people liked it. In junior high I won some local newspaper’s youth poetry contest. I’d written an awful thing about loving yourself for who you are — as if I was anywhere near doing that at that time! My poem won for my age group and was “published” in a mimeographed anthology with the other win-place-show writers. It was a very big deal for me.
So I was definitely already thinking of myself as a writer when I landed in 9th grade English with Mr. DeBlois. I don’t think I let him know anything about my artistic delusions. I kept my head down and did my work, I responded with predictable horror to the Jackson and Capote films (and with the additional, unexpected horror of seeing how funny my male classmates found the murder of Nancy Clutter). There weren’t any occasions I can recall when sharing any of my glaringly awful poetry would have been appropriate.
But in 12th grade Engish there were plenty of opportunities. I wrote a contrived short story about violence in the Jim Crow south. I wrote some sing-song-rhyming poems about God only knows what. I wrote a Dr. Suess-style story about some creatues (the Bushelbracks) that lived in the bushes behind my grandmother’s house. Whatever.
(The fact that I remember any of this is terrifying, but it is also not very surprising. My mother, who has always been the number-one fan of my writing, kept all my work. Eventually, these works would be collected and stored in a green and yellow plastic bag from my favorite clothing store: Tempo Fashions.
You really cannot make this stuff up.
The Tempo Fashions bag would come out from time to time and we’d pick through its riches, reading some bits, laughing at others. For a bunch of years we thought that bag of fabulousness had been lost. That green and yellow pattern was pretty loud and distinctive, and it couldn’t be found anywhere. My mother solved the mystery: the bag had been replaced! She found all the writing, just in a different container. We can all rest easily now.)
Rather than point out that my work, even at its “best,” was pretty bad, Mr. DeBlois encouraged me to keep writing. He didn’t just grade my assignments, he wrote comments and questions as if we were in a writing workshop and my wacky offerings were worthy of considered critiques.
No one had ever responded to my writing in that way. People were nice about my work — even people who weren’t my mother — but no one had ever taken the time to have something to say about it, suggestions for how I might do more, might improve. Mr. DeBlois treated me as if I was a writer. And that unquestioned acceptance was beyond powerful for me.
What did he see? It was most assuredly not good writing. Really. That’s not modesty or La Impostora. The things I wrote that year were awful. The strongest piece I turned in was a poem I stole from my little sister!
So, he didn’t see talent, exactly. What, then? It could really just have been my energy for writing. I don’t remember anyone else in that class being as into the creative writing assignments as I was. So maybe he wanted to support me in doing something I was passionate about.
Whatever his reasons for giving me the time and attention he did, I am grateful. I wrote jokingly about my Tempo Fashions Collection, but having someone take my efforts so seriously was invaluable.
Yes, it’s true that the very next year brought the start of college and the awful poetry workshop experince I mentioned in yesterday’s post. And it’s true that I shut down after that workshop. I was still writing, but I stopped sharing my work with anyone. I stopped thinking of myself as a writer and started saying that I liked to write, that I wrote a little but wasn’t a “real” writer. That was surely the year La Impostora became my constant companion … BUT … I didn’t stop writing.
How many people do good teachers reach? How many of their students have that special experience that changes something about them? How many other students in my high school did Mr. DeBlois see something in? There have to be others, plenty of others. Because he taught for years and because I’m not that special. In what ways is the support he gave them still meaningful in their lives?
Mr. DeBlois isn’t the only or the best writing teacher I’ve ever had, but he was the first, the first to make space for it to be okay for me to be a writer. That was almost 40 years ago. Thank you, Mr. DeBlois. I was on this path before senior year, but you set me more firmly on it, gave me some sturdy, comfortable hiking boots to carry me through. Whatever you saw in those crazy assignments I wrote for you, I’m grateful for it. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.
It’s Teacher Appreciation Week 2019! I’m going to post each day about teachers who have been influential in my life.