Last month I wrote an open letter to a teacher I wasn’t thrilled with. Unless you’ve been very lucky I’m sure you have at least one of those teachers in your past.
Unless you’ve been very unlucky, you also have a teacher like the one I’m going to tell you about today. He was an English teacher of mine. For privacy reasons, I won’t be sharing his name.
I don’t know where he is now, or if he’s even still alive. But this is the letter I would send to him if I could.
You taught English to Eight graders. That’s a damn thankless job, let’s just throw that out there right now. By the eighth grade, most kids have lost the joys of hearing a story. They’ve reached that sad, depressing age when they think themselves too old for such thing. Pity on them.
You taught English, and I loved you for that alone. By this time I knew that I wanted to be a writer, and so I valued English as one of the only classes that could teach me something that I would need for the rest of my life. As you can see, I was as dumb as the rest of my peers, believing that the rest of my classes had nothing to teach me. If I had gone in with a more open mind, I might have gone away with more than I did.
Or maybe not. You and I both know that we deserved better than that school. It’s sad, but a fact’s a fact.
At any rate, you taught me English. But you taught me more than that by far.
You taught me the importance of being able to give good directions. I remember so clearly the day you explained that, for whatever reason, people tended to stop and ask you for directions to a place. I was really bad at that. I still sort of am. But I’m getting better. I see it as a mark of belonging. If you can tell an out of towner how to get to the nearest gas station, or how to get back onto 422, it marks you as someone who lives here. Someone who has lived here awhile, long enough to have roots. It also marks one as a capable, competent adult. Something I still feel like I’m trying to prove to myself I am.
You were right, I can now guess the endings to most movies, books and tv shows. You said that when you heard enough stories, you started seeing the clues early on. Almost no endings surprised you anymore, you said. And you were so right. I’ve gotten better at solving ‘Who’s the Killer’ sort of shows over the years. Not because I’ve gotten better at deductive reasoning, but because I’ve learned to look for storyteller cues. This only works with stories that aren’t based on real events, though. No one can guess what’s going to happen in real life. This past election was proof enough of that. This ability to see the ending has led me to treasure the endings I don’t see coming. I have striven to write that kind of endings. I don’t know if I’ve succeeded every time. But I have tried.
You told us why we were writing what seemed like stupid essays that lacked any originality. Actually, this is how the whole directions thing came up. You never just said, “Here’s what we’re writing about today.” You explained why this sort of writing was important, really important. Not just to people like me, who tell stories for a living. When I was in your class I was an elitist, believing that only professional writers really needed to be able to write well. But I was wrong. Writing is a skill that everyone needs. Thank you for trying to tell us that. I hope I wasn’t the only one who got it.
You taught me a new sense of patriotism that I hadn’t understood before. I’ve always been proud to be an American. But before I met you I’d only ever seen our country painted with two colors. The first was the blind love of a fanatic who will refuse to see faults. We are the best country in the world, damn everyone else! All other countries are inferior to ours. The second was a sort of creeping self-loathing, that tended to meld with a good helping of narcissism. It was the point of view of someone who saw our country as bad and flawed. But this person wasn’t like all the rest of us. This person had a world view that was greater than that of the US of A. They saw America for what it really was, and found it wanting.
You didn’t see us that way, and neither do I. We’re a complex place, with grave issues and lots of infighting. But we’re good too, and creative. Our country is our people, with good and bad all mashed together until you can’t tell where one starts and the other ends. Just like every other place.
You shamed me into sharing my writing. It was a lynchpin moment for me. You asked me to share a piece I’d written, reading it aloud to the class. I was fourteen, can you forgive me? I refused, the first time I’d ever said no to a teacher. I didn’t really understand why at the time. I had read plays and stories out loud. I was always eager to give answers. But to read my own words out loud? To the class? No way, someone might laugh.
After class, I apologized, because I was a good student who wanted her teachers to like her. And you said to me, “Don’t apologize. If that’s how you’re wired, that’s how you’re wired. I just didn’t think that’s how you were.”
You were right. That’s not how I am. Fortunately, I changed my wiring. And when I hesitate to hit the publish button on a project, I think of you. I changed my wiring, sir.
Maybe that’s why you said what you did when I got the courage to share my work. You told me my writing was good. And I bet you didn’t know that you were the first person ever to do that.