I’ve had some amazing teachers. Most people get only one or two of these in a lifetime. I’ve been blessed beyond my deserving with good teachers. Today, I said goodbye to my third high school teacher to have died of cancer.
My ninth grade art teacher, Karen Bolton, died shortly after I moved up to tenth grade. She was the first teacher in the arts to ever help me find the bending point for the rules, and how to stop just before the breaking point.
Ma Gwinn, my English teacher from tenth and eleventh grade, died of lung cancer in 2010. I had to change my definition of the world when she left it. Nothing is the same knowing that she’s gone. I didn’t know what she was doing at the time, but I realize now that her absolute lack of tolerance for crap has affected every aspect of my life: how I read and write, how I teach, how I conduct myself in relationships, how I raise my daughter.
This afternoon, I attended a memorial service for my Russian teacher, John Sheehan. In between declensions and low-budget Russian language soap-operas-for-the-classroom, Mr. Sheehan ran off campus to smoke between classes, led us in traditional ceremonies to greet Russian diplomats and visitors at the Orlando International Airport, cultivated mystery about a smuggled painting listed as a stolen Russian national treasure, and made certain every student who crossed his path had a safe haven in the form of the office/Russian club costume closet at the back of the classroom. For those who needed a shoulder to cry on after hours, he opened his home.
I am realizing that the pillars who held the sky up for me as a student are slowly processing out of this world. It’s different than saying goodbye to one special person. It’s accepting that the people who are part of the original architecture of Me are a wall that is crumbling. People who didn’t already know them won’t know them now, and I cannot tell you how sorry I am for you if you never encountered them. I want to tell everyone to go and rush and meet all my former teachers who are still breathing this air today, while they’re still here, before it’s too late and you never know what you missed.
Last school year, my daughter’s art teacher let the children choose an artist for an homage project. Zoie chose to honor Claude Monet. In her homage, she painstakingly copied Water Lilies in crayon and colored pencil, working hard to get every shimmer of light from the original onto her fourth grade construction paper. Of course it’s far from perfect. It’s her own interpretation. But the blueprint is obvious, and the foundation for her creativity. As a teacher, and as a former student of Great Teachers like Mr. Sheehan, I want my life to be an homage. Like Karen Bolton, I want to help my students think for themselves while still communicating in a way that people will listen to them. Like Ma Gwinn, I want to challenge my students never to take crap from anyone, least of all themselves. Like John Sheehan, I want to make sure every student who crosses my path knows they are not alone.
After the service, two former classmates and I visited Ma Gwinn’s grave. I’m feeling her absence again today, along with the absence of these other Greats. I will end by reposting a note I wrote on facebook the month Ma Gwinn died. But before I do, I ask you please, if you teach, teach your heart out. Be one of these teachers. Be one of the Greats. When you’re tired and burned out, your students still need you. If you’re teaching as a fall-back plan, learn to love it or get out and do something you love instead. If the next generation of students doesn’t get to have a chance to work under a Karen Bolton, a Rosalie Gwinn, a John Sheehan, or their colleagues, who are mostly retired now, then you and I have failed them. They deserve life-changing teachers, and we will not have done our jobs right if we give them any less. Find a Great and let your life become an homage.
They are All Perfect: Facebook Note 11/28/2010
Ma Gwinn died 26 days ago.
When I found out she was dying, I asked my principal if could take off early on Wednesdays to go be with her. I was granted my Wednesdays, but I went only once.
At first, I had misunderstood a comment from a mutual friend and thought Rosalie (Gwinn) was feeling her life had somehow been less worthy. I was going on a quest, which is the easiest way for me to do things. When this friend set me straight, the task at hand became harder. I had to look beyond the shining armor that has been my excuse for doing things most of my life.
Without a cause, I was just me. I had to admit to myself that she probably didn’t want visitors in her state. I had to admit to myself that my visits, which I’d already arranged at work but had not announced to her, were selfish: I wanted more of her. I am not the sort of person to just drop by, but I knew if I called first, she might tell me not to bother.
When I did go by, that first Wednesday, it was like it always had been. When Ma Gwinn was my English teacher, and later when I visited her a couple times at her home, she never had any interest in the dressings of life. Her focus was the core truth at the center of each word. A skeleton of a woman hooked up to an oxygen machine and unable to feel her feet, she intimidated me as much as ever.
Her husband was home with her and had let me know I could sit with her for fifteen minutes, but that she needed rest. Trying to honor this and her knife-sharp questions at once had me fumbling between answering about the moments that rocked my life’s foundations and the glib pleasantries of someone trying to leave in a socially acceptable way.
I realize now, and am humbly grateful for it, that she didn’t want me to go.
I didn’t want to go, either, which made all the little excuses lies on my tongue. I felt like I was giving the impression that I was trying to escape, when in fact nothing would have pleased me more than to stay with her for as many hours as she would endure me.
Forty-five minutes later I left, asking if I could come back, telling her I wanted more time with her. We made no specific arrangements; I didn’t tell her about the future Wednesdays I had cleared.
The combination of ridiculous social graces and raw, ugly truth was just as sloppy as it had been every other time I’d spoken to her, and I knew that I hadn’t learned it yet, the real lesson behind her teaching. It was close enough that I knew it existed this time, but I couldn’t quite get to it.
The next Wednesday I couldn’t take off.
The following week, I did take off early, but I did not go see her. I didn’t want to bring that awkwardness back to her. I didn’t want her to feel like I was trying to get away, and also I didn’t know how to ask her about that lesson, that true intention behind all the commas and apostrophes.
So I wrote her a letter. I knew it would be one of hundreds she’d received already. I knew that, though she cared for me, my significance to her could not be equal to what hers was to me. But I also knew that this lesson was essential, and I wanted her to be proud of me.
As I wrote, I began to understand it had to do with truth. I began to understand that she would be most satisfied with me, or any of us, when we had become satisfied with ourselves, when we asked the biting questions on our own and answered without fear.
I re-read the letter over the next couple days and discovered a misplaced comma.
I could not think of sending my English teacher a letter with a punctuation error. I decided to revise it, but whenever I thought of it, I was not in a position to do so.
The result is that a comma kept me from sending my written thoughts, unadulterated by false pleasantries, to Ma Gwinn in time for her to read it.
It has disturbed me.
Thanksgiving week some former classmates of mine were in town. Since graduating, I intentionally avoided all gatherings of people who went through IB with me. I had taken such a detour from my expected path. My life embarrassed me. There were misplaced commas all over it.
Three of them planned a lunch. I was invited.
I thought of the letter, and I went.
And there, at lunch, my schoolmate Oni said it in one sentence. She was talking about music, letting go of the microscopic search for mistakes in playing violin and instead embracing the beauty of the sound. She said of the sounds: “In their imperfections, they are all perfect.”
I knew this of paintings, of people I love, and of so many other things.
Now I know it is what Rosalie Gwinn wanted me, and all of us, to know of ourselves.
There is beauty in our imperfections. We should not fear them.