Friday, March 2, 2012

They Noticed

Posted today by the Open Road Integrated Media Group Blog in honor of Women's History Month:

Though I always yearned for a male teacher's attention (and developed a few crushes along the way), it was the female teachers who took notice of me, of my writing, and who helped me know that I was smart and had something to say. In the late 1960s, my family moved away from Washington DC and its racial unrest, and the horrible collection of assassinations that changed us forever (much as 9/11 has done for this generation). We landed in the safe suburbs of Denver, where the skies were always blue and the sun always shone. And the people were mostly one color: the same color as us. We didn't move because we were racist, but because my parents were weary of the violence and turmoil.

I entered Miss Toeppen's fifth grade class in January, an over-dressed newcomer from back east. I talked funny, I wore dresses in the land of jeans, and I thought about things a bit differently than the other kids. During creative writing time, I feverishly wrote stories about the world I'd left behind: poor black parents in food lines, interracial couples being harassed by strangers, a kid being gunned down in a riot. Miss Toeppen, new to teaching at 22 and as open-hearted and soft as they come, was bowled over. The rest of the students wrote about sports or pets or vacations, and wrote grudgingly at that. I never wanted to stop. She took me aside one day, sat me down, looked straight into my eyes and said, "You're stories are good, you know that, right?"

In junior high, we were assigned to write a long story about anything we wanted to. Not a short story, a long story, and I'd never been so excited. I'd fallen into a group of kids who, like me, were highly unsupervised and dealing with a few issues at home. We smoked pot and cigarettes, and drank whatever we could get our hands on. As new, more exciting drugs came along, we experimented freely. We worked hard to both pretend that we were grown up and to escape the world of grownups we knew. I wrote a drug and alcohol filled tragedy based on my previous summer, calling it fiction, and turned it in, all 100 pages of it (names changed to protect the not-so-innocent). Sure, I was nervous that my English teacher, Mrs. Deutsch, would "narc" on me and I'd be in big trouble, but it was the 70s and the counter-culture had permeated even the suburbs. When it came time to get the graded stories back, she asked us to come up individually as she called our names. Mine was last, and the bell had rung; all the other students were gone. She handed my story to me and said, "This was very interesting." It had an A++ on the front page. She seemed to be waiting for me to say something. When I didn't, she smiled. "Good job," she said. "Really good job."

Parents now might faint at the thought that a teacher wouldn't hand the story over to the principal or worse, my parents. But because I knew she knew it wasn't fiction, I learned that she trusted me to grow up and learn from this harrowing experience, which was exactly what I did. Perhaps that was in the text or subtext of the story, I don't know, but again, she made me feel like a writer, a real writer. And yes, I still felt like an outsider, all these years later, but I realized that's what a lot of people I admired felt like: writers and poets, artists and activists. I recognized Miss Deutsch as a fellow outsider, in her Bohemian ways and "cool" way of handling my story.

In high school, I once again found my way into a creative writing class led by an outlandish, eccentric woman, Ms. Green, who regaled us with her wild thoughts, laughed loudly, and encouraged us to write something unique, something deep, something true. I fed her story after story, poem after poem, and she was always hungry for more. She read our work at her desk, her chair tipped back a little and an index finger on her lip, her hair large and untamed, murmuring, "Mmm, mmm," at our words, sometimes getting tears in her eyes. She noticed us; she felt what we felt. And she let us know.

I teach writing now, to adults and kids. I try to read their work like that, to get inside the writer's skin and understand her or his intention. I try to let them know how important their stories are. And yes, I read a lot of hard and harrowing stories, obviously based on the writer's experiences. And I try to trust that by witnessing their words, by hearing what they have to say, I'm helping them know that by writing, they, too, will get through the hard stuff.

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