Inspiring English Teachers

Readers, please note: The Goodreads Giveaway for Flashes of War has officially begun. Enter to win one of two free, advance copies! Now through April 27th.

In high school, I had an English teacher whose reputation preceded her. Word in the hallowed halls of Wilson High School was that she held high expectations, made students laugh, and didn’t let anyone off the hook easily. But there’s more to it than that. Apparently, this teacher’s expectations weren’t always stated. Sure, she told students to try their best, but, what did that mean? (It meant something different for each student, though there’s no way I could have articulated that at the time.) And this teacher did make her students laugh, but not because she was funny. She was startling–her honesty, her passion, her dedicated focus. To a classroom full of sixteen-year-olds, these unapologetic qualities felt humorous because we’d never quite seen anything like them before. Especially not in a teacher. Finally, when she backed a student into an intellectual or disciplinary corner, it wasn’t by intimidation or humiliation tactics. It was simply by the sheer fact that all of us–every single student who stepped through her classroom door–wanted desperately to deserve this teacher’s respect. When we fell short, she caught us and made a point to let us know.

Of course, this teacher did respect us…that’s the whole point. By virtue of the very fact that she expected nothing less than our best, she respected not only who we were but who she knew we could become. And in doing so, she gave us permission to be our best. In a world where Kurt Cobain could shoot his face off and where Matthew Shepard would very soon be brutally murdered…In a world where a blow job could bring down a Presidency and school shootings were fast becoming “regular” national news…there were a lot of reasons to feel confused. But through all of this, our English teacher gave us plenty more reasons to work hard and do our best.

It’s difficult to put it all into words…(especially now, just after midnight, returning home from a slam-bam 7-hour waitressing shift and all the tattered-jeans-memories of my life as a high school grunge rocker slamming around in my brain)…but what I mean to say is: there are people in our lives who we will never forget, even if we never see them again. Until this week, this English teacher was one of those people. But as soon as my comp copies of Flashes of War arrived, I knew I had to get in touch with my old high school and start the search for this English teacher. She’d long since retired, but the alumni director had her email address and–voila–within just a few hours, I’d received a message from my former teacher. I asked her for her postal address so that I could send her a copy of the book, which mentions her in the acknowledgments.

And as small worlds go, it turns out that she and I had both participated in the same writer’s retreat at Imnaha over the years…just during different weeks, and therefore missing each other by only a sliver. She’d even stayed in the same room I’d stayed in when working on Flashes of War back in 2011. And two weeks from now, she’s headed back down to Imnaha for another writing retreat. If all goes as planned with the US Postal Service, she’ll have Flashes of War in time for her journey down into the canyon. My book in my teacher’s hands. My book down into the canyon where some of the stories were first drafted. My book bringing me back to the very person who planted the seeds for the writing life in me so many years ago. Amazing, how life bends back on itself!

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