I fell asleep crying last night. Not the sobbing, blubbering kind but the quiet, heavy, hot tears just rolling down the sides of my face as I lay waiting for sleep kind. There is strange and unbidden ‘thing’ going on right now. I call it a thing because I have no idea what else to call it. Memories and longings I have buried for years are bubbling up and disturbing the smooth little pool of calm I have created in my life.
I have spent a lifetime packing away memories and someday dreams. I am also a master of having little or no past. There are, maybe, a handful of people who know much about my growing up, my history or my pain. I do my best to hide from it myself. Last night’s meltdown was facilitated by a simple conversation of Facebook. It wasn’t even my conversation to be having but I had responded to a question about what the best part of my day was. I had shared about teaching my eight month old grand baby to lean in and ‘kiss, kiss’-and yes, this was a highlight because it filled my heart with joy-the real kind. That wasn’t the trigger. What tripped me up was asking the same question in return. Their response? Completely innocuous-had nothing to do with me, at all. She had been teaching writing to a group of high schoolers (which I happen to think is an incredible and important task).
Why would this set me off? Memories. Plain and simple. I don’t remember many people from my high school years but I do remember two of my writing teachers. Vividly-their names (Mrs. Knopke and Mrs. Holt), what they looked like, their classrooms-even assignments- which can return to my mind’s eye in an instant. More importantly, I remember how they made me feel.
One was the quintessential bohemian-big glasses, unruly hair, soft manner and she worked in drama as well. The other? Well, I can’t watch Monster’s Inc. without thinking about her-there is a character that so captures her appearance (minus the multiple legs) and demeanor that it is uncanny. One was loved by many, one by few. I adored both. They had very different teaching styles but demanded-not expected-demanded-excellence, and to earn an A was a golden moment. I had each teacher for only a semester-different schools, different states, but thirty some odd years later I can be back in their classrooms in the blink of an eye.
I worked hard under their guidance. While other students grumbled and complained I thrived within the challenge of more and better. The coveted A, that moment of satisfaction when I flipped the paper over to reveal it and all it meant. Even more satisfying-and decidedly unexpected- the moment when I realized I wasn’t called to Mrs. Knopke’s office due to some failure but because she wanted to ask me (me!) permission to keep my paper and use it as an example for future classes. The assignment? It was based on a single word. Squalid. The funny thing is I don’t remember what, specifically, I wrote about but I remember the scene I set quite well. The heat waves rising off the old pavement, the sound of the cicada’s throbbing in the air and an open door swinging on a weather beaten porch leading into the dark and squalid interior. I also remember standing next to her file cabinet. She stood close and told me I was good. She was encouraging and earnest. She had no idea that her encouragement could never speak into the circumstances of my life. Or, that her words would resonate and ignite me thirty years later.
Another assignment that stands out was a reinterpretation paper. I don’t recall if Mrs. Holt had us reading Poe or if it was a random choice on my part but I re-visioned The Tell Tale Heart. Her room was in an auxiliary trailer on campus. It was always a little dark-which was welcomed because Florida was hot and sticky the season I was there and it was a respite to open that door and go in after traipsing across an outdoor maze of dirty walkways. She would walk up and down the aisles of desks returning papers upside down in front of each student but when she reached my desk she handed the paper directly to me. An A+. As she made her way back to her desk she made her usual speech about re-writes being due by Friday with the understanding that you would receive exactly one letter grade lower than the actual rewrite grade. This meant that if you got a C on this paper, the best you could hope for was a B, but that every point would count at the end of the semester. I sat quietly tucking my paper away when she said ‘With the exception…” and I could feel myself getting hot beginning somewhere around my neck and moving rapidly through my ears and out through the top of my head. Oh, please do not let her say it (I couldn’t bear to stand out-still can’t). Thankfully she didn’t say my name but she did say ‘I seldom give out A’s and almost never give an A+’ and went on to say that it can be done and blah, blah, blah. All I could hear was my heart pounding and I was sure I was radiating some sort of backwards guilt vibe that everyone could feel. She didn’t mention my name, that’s all that mattered at that point-thank God for small mercies.
I did my best to pretend I had no idea who had gotten the grade and grumbled my way to the next class like the rest. What I didn’t pretend was how much it meant to me. When we moved back to Colorado-I’m not even sure I was there an entire semester, now that I think about it-I went to Mrs. Holt and thanked her. I told her how much I liked her class and that I thought she was a great teacher. I think she was surprised but I was even more surprised when she told me to keep writing. I treasured my time in her class and clearly I treasured that A+. I didn’t keep writing.
I would tinker on and off with writing for years. More than 30 to be exact-ish. I still tinker. The circumstances of my life are very different now and my stories will contain less drama and more academic economy than I am sure any of my high school writing did. But, I will continue to tinker; not to write in the ‘real’ sense of the word but so that, someday, my children might be able to stumble upon it and learn more about their mom, who did her best to be a nobody because that’s who she was led to believe she was for so long-except by a few people, memories now, that remind her that there is-that she might be- more…