It is no surprise to me that I have become both a writer and an educator by trade. I am one of those people who was sculpted by the talented, dexterous hands of the English teachers I loved.
Sister Rose remains my all-time, no-doubt favorite teacher. Here we are together in our fourth grade classroom. When she opened her mouth the first day and said my name in her heavy Irish brogue, I was a goner. She was a nun, yes...that's true. But, she was a rebel in the way most English teachers are...we'd write poetry instead of sentences to practice penmanship. When we were rowdy, instead of imposing penalties, Sister Rose picked up her acoustic guitar and would sing to us until we were semi-conscious, transported on the headiness of her powerful voice. It was this woman who first said to me, "You have a gift with words, use it well." She would ask to read my short stories, my essays, my voluminous poems of this period (mostly all about animals, fantasy, and my family). Then, she'd comment seriously in the corners in pencil and compliment my work. Sister Rose taught us Gaelic, though I know it wasn't in the curriculum...she talked about society and spirituality. She still surfaces in my dreams with that voice of hers on my worst days, repeating, "You have a gift...use it now, use it well..."
For two years after I had Sister Rose as my teacher, I wandered around, forlorn and missing her. The summer after fourth grade, she was transferred by the Bishop and we never saw her again. Language and literature were still everything to me, but my teachers all tried to reign my thinking in. I quickly was convinced that any magic I may have had with words came directly from Sister Rose's influence. Without her, the writing still came...but, it was all wrong. I stopped sharing it, just filled my notebooks in the secret spaces of my purple bedroom.
Then, I got Mrs. T for seventh and eighth grades...immediately, she picked up on my interest and secret enthusiasm and once again, I had an editor, a mentor, and a reader of my very own. She loved writing--she worked hard to reach each student. If the kids hated reading poetry, she'd bring in recorded versions of it. If we couldn't get detail down, she'd ask us to close our eyes for fifteen minutes a stretch, then write the sound of the rain outside. She told me I had a spark, "I can see it glowing...you're all lit up inside." As many seventh and eighth grade girls know, these years were the ones where self-hatred found me. I didn't believe one word of her kindness, but she lavished it upon me anyway. Eventually, it started to take root...
I was fully prepared to hate Ms. M. The horror stories about how hard she was abounded and I believed them. Still, she was teaching the high-level creative writing course that a select group of Seniors were entitled to opt into. I wanted the class--so, I was stuck with the teacher. A lot of boys wanted to be in the classroom because she was incredibly beautiful with waist-length blonde hair, a curvy body, and a habit of bending over the desk to conference about the work--her often-discussed breasts hanging inches above your face.
Ms. M was tough. She pushed me like no other teacher had before--critical questions, revision suggestions, and a small spattering of compliments I worked hard to earn. She talked often about her experiences in grad school in New Mexico. She dripped in turquoise and brought in slide after slide of the sky...asking us to write through it. In her hand, she always clutched a pen, like the muse might visit her at any moment and we'd just have to teach ourselves for one session. I was exposed to writers far beyond the standard Catholic high school literary canon of dead white guys from England. There was a whole sub-culture of writers working right in that moment--it was dark, mysterious, and alive. She was in love with Bob Dylan and we'd listen to her tapes during revision sessions. Every afternoon, a new Dylan quote was scrawled on the corner of the chalkboard and I'd copy it down...puzzle over it later for hours. I started listening to him then..."an acquired taste," I can remember telling my younger brother who shook his head at the sound of that distinctive voice. (for him, it was an acquired taste, because he knows far more Bob Dylan today than I do...) Ms. M taught me that tough teachers can be the best ones. I applied that year to a small handful of colleges, writing "Desired Major: English" with a bold stroke of my pen.
The next teacher to open my perspective as a writer came after college (where the professors were incredible--but, immersed me fully in the writing of others, not my own: I think, now, with my belly as full of literature as it is...this was a very good thing). I snuck away alone for the first time--never had I traveled without a friend, family member, or group. I boarded a plane for Boston...then a ferry to carry me to Provincetown where the Fine Arts Work Center stood as a cultural and artistic beacon by the seaside. Michael Burkard turned poetry inside out for me, complimented my "raw" voice, and gave a sense of permission that motherhood in all of its mundane complexity was a valuable subject for writing. All of my favorite teachers had been women, so I initially was resistant to the idea of a male teacher, even just for a workshop. He blew that sexist assumption of mine right out of the water. He took us to his art studio, discussed the evolution of writing over a lifetime, reminded us to be gentle as this process unfolded. The last morning, he offered to meet everyone over coffee on the main drag and no one showed up but me. I got two unbelievable hours to sit on a bench and drink Chai by the ocean with this writing genius. I picked his brain, I asked him everything I could think of...we reviewed my work and he offered suggestions, he wanted to know about Post-Partum Depression from the inside based on one of my poems...I asked about his writing and he explained his process. When, at last, I complimented his reading from the night before, he shrugged--reached into his bag and pulled out his copy of the Pennsylvania Collection Agency he had read from. "Here," he said, "I want you to have it." It is full of his notes and the reading order in his handwriting...it is a talisman I hold onto. He said goodbye on the sidewalk corner and I crossed the street bound for the library for one last afternoon of writing before I went home. His openness made me a better teacher with my own students...and the ideas he shared that morning have wedged into my mind. I have no doubt that because of that one exchange, I am a much better writer.
Things came full circle for me when I got the chance to study with Natalie Goldberg, the well-known writing guru who has inspired thousands with her 1980's era book, Writing Down the Bones. I could write a book based solely on my four trips to Taos to study with her. She is as amazing as you'd guess she'd be, but also completely unlike what I had expected. Natalie is tougher than I anticipated. I'd read Bones at least a thousand times by our first meeting. I devoured absolutely everything of hers I could get my hands on whether it was about writing or Zen or painting or poetry. Her novel, Banana Rose, became my first summer read every year from when I was nineteen years old. Nell was, I assumed, just a version of Natalie herself--so, I felt like she was my old friend from the start. She wasn't. She was tired...worn from writing The Great Failure and a host of commitments. The first session, I left disappointed by her brusque persona of the week. I fought with myself and flailed about the assignments she'd given, the opportunity I was lucky enough to get to study with her, and the absolute resistance I faced when the person didn't match up with my image.
Maybe I didn't belong in New Mexico. But...by the second session, she had softened up. The shell had cracked open and I was seeing the greatest teacher I'd ever known. I was learning not to idolize any writer--not to assume that this "meeting of the minds" would happen because I happened to love her words. I wasn't attached anymore--and, to her, that would probably have been enough for any fledgling writer to get out of study. Then, I got so much more. Full circle in ways I hadn't noticed at the time...serious comments on the corners of my work in pencil, attention to writing detail and a sudden series of compliments and kindnesses, New Mexico and Bob Dylan, and the reminder that every subject was worthy of our deepest mind.
I have been thinking about this full-circle for my own inspiration lately as I dig in and consume my own thoughts on the page. The coincidences and similarities in each of these great teachers makes me laugh out loud in some odd cosmic recognition. Then today, I hear about Natalie's new project (linked below): a film she has just appeared in about Bob Dylan and Minnesota...about how you never really can go home again...but, you can find your teachers everywhere.