Last Thursday, the first day of school for many towns in New Jersey and the Northeast, my Facebook newsfeed was flooded with adorable back-to-school photos. Kids standing on the front porch or at the bus stop, smiles on their tanned faces and backpacks laden with school supplies. Ahh. I could almost smell the fall air and glue sticks.
As a kid, I loved the first day of school. The first week even. I loved the excitement of starting over and the newness of everything. By Halloween, however, that feeling was way gone and for the most part I didn’t enjoy classroom learning. When I wasn’t asking to go to the girl’s room or nurse’s office (my grade school equivalent of a coffee break), I was staring out the window, daydreaming. Probably explains why I exceeded the independent study credits allowed by my college and didn’t pursue a master’s degree after graduation. Like most writer types, I love to read, but I’ve found that I learn best by doing.
So when I first heard we’d be blogging about teachers this month, a mixture of teachers’ names popped into my head from both the conventional and the real world classrooms, where I learned some of life’s earliest and biggest lessons.
Teaching, in all its forms, is hard work. Next to parenting, in my opinion, it’s one of the toughest professions on the planet. I’m thankful that this month’s theme prompted me to flip through my mental rolodex (Google that if you’re under 30) and think about the teachers I’d like to give a shout out to this September. Here’s a small sampling.
There’s Ms. Borab, my third grade teacher who taught me cursive writing and once took a group of her favorite students bowling after school. It was weird seeing a teacher out in the real world, doing ordinary things like drinking soda and wearing ugly bowling shoes. She was also the first person I ever knew who used the prefix “Ms.” Did she plant the early seeds of feminism in my head? Maybe. When I moved in fourth grade, she was my pen pal for a while as I tried to deal with the nervousness of starting over in a new school, and the sadness of leaving my old one behind.
In high school, there was Mr. Jinks. He not only taught two of my favorite subjects, biology and human physiology, he had the coolness and compassion to spring me out of study hall two years in a row by bestowing upon me the title of “lab assistant.” With that coveted (well maybe not that coveted) assistantship came the privilege of hanging out with fellow “lab assistants” in the small storage room attached to the bio classroom or, as was more often the case, leaving the building for an extra-long lunch. Yep. Mr. Jinks rocked.
Mr. O’Dell was another high school teacher. He taught ancient history and humanities. In the latter class, he introduced us to all the great philosophers and taught us the art of persuasive writing and rhetoric. He let us argue about our ideas in class, and he didn’t care if we got loud or emotional. He also didn’t care if we disagreed with him. He treated us like the adults we were becoming and that left a lasting impression.
In college, non-fiction author Bernard Asbell was my professor for article writing and literary non-fiction and may have been the toughest editor I’ve ever encountered. He taught me that our writing was like a contract with the reader. Every word. Every sentence. Every paragraph mattered. If he sensed us phoning it in, he’d draw a horizontal line across the page and write in the margin. “This is where I stopped reading.” Once he wrote on my paper, “Bye, bye said the reader. You broke the contract.” He was tough, but he made me better. When I sold my first magazine article in my 20s I called him to let him know. “What do I do now?” I asked him. “Sell another one,” he said. To that he added. “And don’t ever write anything for free.”
If Mr. Asbell was my toughest editor, Walt Herring was my scariest. He was the model for the editor in chief in my second YA novel FAMOUS LAST WORDS. Even though at times he seemed like a polar bear on crack, Walt had a good heart and a way of making me believe that as a young journalist, I was part of something bigger. He taught me to care about the people I wrote about long after the story that made them newsworthy.
Then there’s my sister who is hands down one of the smartest people I know. A former classroom teacher, she’s a dissertation away from her doctorate in education and this semester she’s teaching children’s literature. It’s impossible to recount everything I’ve learned from her over the years, or the ways she has inspired me to be a better person, but I will say that as my younger sister she taught me early in life how to care for someone other than myself.
My sister is a tough act to follow, but I’d like to wrap up this post with a random, unknown teacher—my water skiing instructor at one of those all-inclusive clubs on the island of Martinique. Yes, I said water skiing instructor. I have no idea what he name was, but he spoke with a French accent and during that particular vacation I spent all my time learning to water ski. (It had nothing to do with the French accent, I swear.)
During my first attempt, I was able to stand up on the skis right away. I held the rope as we zoomed around an aqua blue Caribbean cove. I didn’t fall once and my fellow vacationers applauded when I got back to the dock. The next day, however, my instructor started teaching me how to jump the boat’s wake and drop one ski to attempt slalom style. That’s when I started falling. Hard. Let me just say that water skiing wedgies are the worst and getting hit with a ski almost sent me back to the beach to work on my tan for the rest of the week. “I’m getting my ass kicked,” I told him when he helped me into the boat on my third day of torture. That’s when he told me something that I’ve thought of many times since. He said that once I learned to stand up, he could pull me in a straight line behind the boat for hours, but that would get boring. I had to try new things. I had to do more. Jumping? Falling? Feeling stupid? Getting hurt? That, he said, meant I was learning something.