Wednesday, June 7, 2017

What My Ninth Grade English Teacher Had to Say (About Me)

It was one of those out-of-nowhere, unexpected moments of affirmation from a source that didn't even dwell in my consciousness.

I don't often check my "message requests" (a.k.a. messages-from-people-you're-not-friends-with-and-whom-you-might-not-even-know).  A few weeks ago, I noticed a message sitting in there, so I clicked over.  It was from someone we'll call Brian Schumann, and it said the following:
I still remember the wonderful fairy tale you wrote in my English class! You still "hold the record"!
I tossed the name around in my head for a few seconds and realized it was my ninth grade English teacher.  I read his words again, amazed that he remembered me after too many years to disclose.  His class wasn't one that stuck out in my memory (let's blame my aging brain).  I remember him as a mild, kind-hearted teacher, and I remember that he was also the German teacher (I took Spanish).  And aside from remembering that I sat in the back of the classroom and once had a stomachache during class, there isn't a whole lot that floats to the top.

I wrote back:
Oh my goodness -- Mr. Schumann!! How kind of you to reach out. I don't even remember the "wonderful fairy tale" -- not even remotely! But do, please, refresh my memory. I'm actually a writer now, so your message has really warmed my heart.

His response:
Ha! I knew you would be! I asked the class to write a fairy tale that they would read to the class afterward. Most of them were cute and kind of clumsy, typical high school stuff. You were the shy, quiet girl at the back of the classroom. You meekly addressed the podium, two periods later, you were finally done. We were all mesmerized by your skill and imagination. It was Tolkienesque with poetry interspersed into it. This still holds the record for skill in high school writing in my entire career!
At this point, my heart was lodged in my throat.  These words:  "Ha! I knew you would be!"

He knew I would be?  He knew I would be! My ninth grade English teacher KNEW I'D BE A WRITER.  I'm fairly certain he never told me that (not that I'd remember), and it's not a teacher's job to tell his students what they're going to be, anyway.  But OH MY GOODNESS.  This man SAW THE WRITER IN ME when I was only 14.

His words could not possibly be more affirming.


Funny, because I didn't know.  Creative writing was always my favorite schoolish thing (school in general wasn't exciting), but I was primarily a musician and an actress, ultimately choosing to major in music education.  In short, I lost my path.

Don't get me wrong--I'm supremely grateful for my music degree, and am happily singing with a symphony chorus and still playing my piano, so it's all good.  But MR. SCHUMANN KNEW I'D BE A WRITER.

Imagine that.

"We were all mesmerized by your skill and imagination."

Mesmerized?  I MESMERIZED you?

"It was Tolkienesque with poetry interspersed into it."

Well, the poetry part doesn't surprise me--I wrote my first poem when I was six.  But TOLKIENESQUE?  I can't even.

And here's the thing.  Had I known who Tolkien was when I was 14 (I did not, but the story of the literary cesspool in which I grew up is one for another time), my head would have become rather inflated at this sort of praise.  I'm profoundly grateful that he saved these words for NOW, all these years later, WHEN THEY HAVE TOUCHED ME SO DEEPLY THAT I DON'T HAVE THE RIGHT WORDS.

NOW is when I needed them.  NOW, when I am in the midst of what is truly the most labor-intensive and verge-of-despair revision I've ever undertaken.  (It's even harder than the infamous we-want-you-to-change-the-sex-of-this-main-character revision from a few years ago.)  NOW, because I'm doing work that an editor wants to see, and I am feeling the WEIGHT of this work, and I needed Mr. Schumann's memory of a socially awkward ninth-grader who blew him away with her fumbling fantasy.

Of course I thanked him for the memory and went on to share a bit about my writing journey.  Then I said:
Thanks so much for reminding me that the writer in me has been there for such a long time, and that it really is what I'm supposed to be doing. And thank you for being such an engaged, thoughtful teacher. I'm so honored to remain in your memory after so many years!
His reply:
Wow! Very cool! Hang in there, it'll happen. Thanks so much for getting back!
All these years later, he is speaking into my life the encouragement of a teacher who cares.  "Hang in there, it'll happen."

I'm hanging in there, Mr. Schumann.  Your words of affirmation have fueled me beyond what I thought my tank could hold.  You found me on Facebook and remembered a ninth-grader who loved to tell stories--and apparently told them well.  And then you reminded me that I AM STILL A GIRL WHO LOVES TO TELL STORIES.

No matter how hard it gets, no matter the heartbreaks along the way--I AM AND ALWAYS WILL BE A GIRL WHO LOVES TO TELL STORIES.

This is what it's about, my friends--remembering that, in the end, we all love to tell stories.  For whatever reason, the telling ignites us, sustains us, infuses us with a deep sense of purpose and joy.  We were all of us meant to be storytellers, in one way or another.  May you find YOUR PATH and YOUR PURPOSE for the stories in your heart.

And may your very own Mr. Schumann appear when you need him the most!