In honor of Thanksgiving (and because I haven’t come up with a new series idea yet), I thought I’d take the opportunity today to say thank you to some folks who played a big part in helping me become a person who loves words and stories and commas and gets to work with them every day; namely, my high school English teachers.
Some of you might have seen my post last year about Miss Stinson and the journals we kept for English 9, and how her encouragement and creativity and restraint in not rolling her eyes at every third word I wrote gave me a lasting sense of worth regarding my writing– not that I left English 9 thinking that everything I wrote had worth, but I left knowing that writing was something worth doing, not because of the result, but because of the process, and the freedom, and the way in which finding the right words can bring order out of chaos in the way the right words brought dry land out of the deep in the beginning. If there’s a group in greater need of a little order in the midst of personal chaos than high school freshmen, I’m not sure who they are, and we loved Miss Stinson for giving us that means of bringing some order to our chaos. (She also accidentally cussed once in class– I doubt anything could have earned our loyalty more quickly.)
Mrs. Baldwin’s love of story was more infectious than any teacher I’d ever had– even the slackers read the books for her class just so they wouldn’t be left out of the passionate (and occasionally violent) discussions about whether Our Town was boring or brilliant or whether or not Jay Gatsby was an antihero. She connected the stories we read in American Literature to her own life and her own past, and by doing so gave us sheltered, dumb, narcissistic teenagers a vague sense of our place in the context of history, and of the reality that our experiences and our opinions and our passions were all echoes of those who had come before us. Mrs. Baldwin shocked us all by reciting “Baby Got Back” in its entirety one day, and shocked us all again by dying far too young two years later.
Mrs. Dennis taught British Literature, and I was her favorite. I’m only slightly ashamed to admit it, because my love for Brit Lit was real and completely without sucking-up motives, but I do feel a little guilty for the time I was stealthily chatting away to Joe Smith (name changed to protect the innocent) during class and Joe got in trouble even though I had totally been the one talking. Sorry, Joe. Mrs. Dennis’s shared passion for the British children’s books I loved awoke me to the joy of discovering “kindred spirits” with whom you never have to feel nerdy or obsessive when talking about books you love because they feel exactly the same way and actually are sometimes even more obsessed than you are. And in terms of the teacher who brought the most joy to my life; well, Mrs. Dennis first recommended that I read P. G. Wodehouse, so I credit her account with about a thousand laughs.
Mrs. Doyle taught advanced writing and never wrote in red pen, which I think tells you pretty much everything you need to know about the type of critic she was– like the famous rule of improv theater, there were never any “No’s” in her class, only “Yes, and _____?”; few periods, lots of question marks. Mrs. Doyle used to require us to write assignments in 100 words or less, teaching us to conserve words (a lesson which obviously didn’t stick) and make strong choices and yes, she counted every one to make sure we didn’t go over. Her beautiful handwriting came back all over the margins of our stories and poems and she was just as enthusiastic about the dumb boring gritty contemporary short stories written by some of the pre-pre-hipster guys as she was about the inevitable fantasy/Biblical-allegory epic trilogies one learns to expect from Christian homeschoolers, which many of my classmates were. Mrs. Doyle was a mirror to hold our ideas and stories up to, preventing us from stagnating and reminding us again and again that “writing is rewriting.”
I learned plenty more about writing and craft and literature after high school– honestly, I probably became a better writer in one semester of graduate-level Victorian literature than my four years in high school– but it’s to those four women in high school I owe thanks for first showing me how to be passionate about books, how stories can be life-changing and life-giving, and how the process of writing doesn’t always give the world a better book or story, but nearly always gives the world a better writer and thinker.
If you have an English teacher or writing mentor or someone you’ve learned from at some point in your writing journey who has had a profound impact on your writing, track them down and tell them thank you; knowing they’ve had a lasting influence on a student fills a teacher’s tank like nothing else. If your biggest influences are gone, honor their memories by telling someone about the impact they had on you, or better yet, go try to have that same kind of impact on someone else– there are plenty of writers in need of guidance, plenty of people who would be enriched by your experiences. And if you’re reading this and are an English teacher (or really, any kind of teacher), thank you. Thank you for inspiring a new army of thinkers and readers and wordsmiths– you’re bringing order out of chaos, dry land out of the deep. Happy Thanksgiving!
Thanks for reading! If you have any craft-related questions or suggestions for future posts, please let me know in the comments.