I was a teenaged chambermaid. (The adult me wrote a book about it – and resisted the urge to name it just that.) I was part of a large family that ran a little motel in Eunice, Louisiana, from the late 1960s to the late-1990s. At one point or another, we were all chambermaids.
I was also a lawn barber, who each week got clobbered by the heat and humidity of the merciless Louisiana summers, pushing a mower over the three acres of booby-trapped topography that was the motel grounds. And, among other colorful and sometimes not-so-colorful things, I was a women’s magazine cake-recipe-enthusiast, an entrepreneurial leather-craftsman, a compulsive note-taker, and a pretty respectable Canasta player.*
That was at home. But at school – well, it was another story entirely: I had a split personality: One Me was outwardly fearless – a class clown (I was not alone in this calling). But simultaneously the Other Me was inwardly petrified. Because of my Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon-sized head (which was further animated by freckles and red hair), I was harassed and ridiculed by the best of the bullies. To survive I figured out I had to deflect this unwanted attention with humor. I played up my cartoonishness. I befriended the bullies and Brains as well as the Jocks; the A-listers, as well as the quiet, easily invisible students (with whom I felt most at home, even though I was good at making myself quite visible).
I’m telling you all this, not because I think I was the least bit unique as a pre-teen and teenager. In fact, I think most kids experience very similar all-over-the-board internal phenomena as they grow up – pretty normal stuff.
Grammarian, librarian, contrarian, or rastafarian:
We need to thank our teachers
But today, in 2020, during these odd, often scary days of isolation as the world grapples with a (thankfully) unusual and startling health crisis, I have thought back on those formative years while planning the upcoming promotion work I have to do for my book. I can see that as all of those seemingly incongruous attributes were colliding in me as a teenager, I could have very well been undone by them. In fact, sometimes I was.
So now, thinking about the school aspect of that time in my life, it is unquestionably clear to me that it was my teachers who helped glue and re-glue me together through that challenging period. It was my teachers, particularly my English teachers, who recognized something in me – despite the fact that I was a pain in the ass – that warranted their patience, the extra time I demanded, and a little bit more from the deep wells of their capacity to attend to the needs of dozens of students being pains in the ass, sometimes all at once.
I can specifically point to English teacher Carole Fuselier at the junior high, the first to tell me I should think about a career as a writer (in hindsight I wish I had followed her advice and wrote books and stories and plays); and to Connie Larson at the high school, who taught me English and French, and who wanted to “spit fire” at me on many occasions because I was being obnoxious, but somehow saw that, in my work, I had something “there there.”
There was Ivy Lee, who taught journalism and was the second person to suggest that writing should be in my professional plans somehow (She was right: it ultimately was. I turned out to be a PR practitioner, so I’ve used writing in my work every day.) And finally Emily Alfred (who would give me an F for starting this sentence with “And,” while explaining that you only get to do that once you’ve learned the ONE proper way to do English – before you are allowed to delve into all the thousands of exceptions to the rules). Mrs. Alfred brought a sense of fun into her English classes, and especially to the writing components of her syllabus. Her approach made me erase the notion that writing was punish-work, and instead a complex puzzle to enjoy solving on the way to telling a compelling story.
With many parents now filling in as teachers of their children during this pandemic, I am certain people everywhere are getting some first-hand, sustained exposure to just how hard – and amazing – the job of teaching can be. If there is a silver lining to this surreal time, I think this exposure will be the thing. Teachers need to be properly compensated, appropriately rewarded for the life-shaping work they do for children. This is a truth, no matter where in the world we are, and it’s high time we all know and act on it.
*It’s a no-no for me to reveal too much about the book beyond these generalizations – so, to get a fuller story, you’ll have read Stone Motel when it arrives in mid-April.
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