“I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artists. Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit.” John Steinbeck
My sister, Kathy, graduates this weekend with her Masters in Teaching. She is 45 years old. To say she is a gifted teacher is an understatement; as a substitute teacher in her district she is one of the most sought-after teachers in the two schools she works. An introverted, painfully shy child in the past, my sister has become adept at capturing the attention and cooperation of young minds. Her students clamor for her attention and approval. She is especially gentle and empathic with those struggling to connect: with the subject matter, with their peers, with other teachers, with their world at hand.
Kathy regrets that she didn’t pursue a teaching career while in college the first time around. Instead, she bowed to influence from our well-meaning parents who recommended that we both get into “business.” So she started working as a trust officer for a large bank. And was miserable, very, very miserable.
Then she fell in love with a wonderful man, got married and had cherubic twin boys and chose to be a full-time mom. Fast forward a few years as the boys grew older and more independent. Her love for teaching, (which had never really gone away, just sort of idled dormant in a corner of her heart), rekindled anew and she started exploring options for substituting at her twins’ school. A Teacher was born.
A wistful, “I wish I had my teaching degree” over the years soon turned into, “I am going back to school and getting my teaching degree!” Armed with a supportive husband, children and a cheerleading squad made up of her teaching peers and other school administrators, my sister successfully juggled full-time motherhood, marriage, managing a home, substitute teaching and a full-time school load to make it to graduation day this coming weekend.
I’m proud of the fact that at her graduation, my sister will be wearing the pendant I gave her for the special day. Engraved are the words from Winston Churchill, “Never, never, never give up,” and her initials. I’m also very proud of her.
The other day, my sister taught a first grade class for most of the week. On Friday, one of the students, who had brought in some flowers, told Kathy that she should take the flowers home with her. After all, as he pointed out, “you did pretty good for yourself this week!” Pretty good, indeed.
I woke up to a day shrouded in clouds, the ground covered with newly fallen snow and a layer of pristine, sparkling ice, even freezing my back storm door shut. It was with relief that I remembered it was Saturday and turned up the heat and ignited the gas logs in the fireplace. Hot coffee in hand, I decided that a bit of plumbing the past was in order.
I ventured into my basement and set about pulling old files and folders. Soon, I had my past spread about me: years of journals and assorted notes and scribbles. As I began to read, the years fell away. Essays I had written in grade school and high school; diary entries from my teenage years; quickly scribbled notes from school chums; journals and notebooks from my years of chronic illness with Graves Disease and throughout my lengthy recovery.
I focused on the earlier stuff. The girlish scrawl, the earnest voice that spoke from those pages, the words from a young mind brimming with imagination and hopeful dreams for her future. I remember being that young girl, so at odds with her surroundings and the other kids. At times my environment felt jarring to me and I just wanted to escape.
There is a theme to my early writing, of feeling isolated, peculiar, lonely and different. If I had stayed on the sidelines, I probably wouldn’t have had as many problems with the other kids, but I was outspoken, fierce even, and participated passionately in my favorite classes.
But I received my due when I would get on the bus, often sitting alone, while the other girls would whisper and snicker about me just loud enough for me to be able to overhear. I dressed funny, my hair looked stupid, I wasn’t “cool”. I couldn’t wait to get home after school. My mother’s cheery, “How was school?” was often received by my cool and deliberate “fine.” Yes, just fine. Peachy. I wanted to fling myself off the nearest cliff.
But I also remember thinking I was meant for better things, and I looked to the Future as if it was a true beacon of hope. Grade school and even high school weren’t going to go on forever and I pinned my hopes on blossoming at 16. To me, that was going to be my turning point, when I became beautiful and all the boys would want me and all the girls would clamor for my friendship.
At the core of it, I was simply a lonely young girl who wanted to connect with someone, who wanted to be understood, who wanted to be loved.
The summer after my junior year in high school, something happened. I trimmed off about 12 pounds with daily bike rides and had my hair coiffed in a buoyant Farrah-like ‘do. I returned to school that September head held high.
And. Nothing. Changed. Oh, yes, I received admiring looks and glances, and one of the “nice” popular boys asked me to a party. But the long-established cliques were impenetrable and when we attended, barely anyone would talk to me, such was the penalty for trespassing.
That was an epiphany for me, that year. I knew I would never let another person make me feel less than who I was at any given time. Fuck them, fuck them all.
Something splashes on my hands and the keyboard and I realize that I am crying. Even now, the pain can reach out and touch me. Sometimes, I wonder why I am writing about this stuff, it seems so useless, like wallowing in the muck. But I’m aware of having a different perception, one of surviving the pain and moving on. In many ways, having a solitary childhood prepared me for adulthood and the challenges that I faced therein. I am resourceful and determined. And I know through experience, that things do get better, and that my tears are as much tears of compassion and release, as of pain.
A dear friend of mine suggested that perhaps this project will be cathartic. I like the analogy of peeling away the layers of an onion until you reach the core. Until you are naked and exposed. I’m feeling very vulnerable with my writing but also excited and passionate. It’s been a good journey so far.