English was always my favorite subject and I dreamed of being a writer, but I had an altercation with one of my high school English teachers. Basically, we pissed each other off. We had a misunderstanding one day, and I thought her reaction was disrespectful and unfair. I told her I didn’t have to take that from her. I was a quiet, conscientious student, and if this had happened at the beginning of the year I would have made the apology she demanded from me and then silently fumed. But it was the end of senior year, and I was done with the absurdity of high school. I craved freedom and independence. I needed to have a voice. The teacher sent me to the vice principal.
The vice principal had previously been a guidance counselor. She was firm, but caring, and she listened and understood exactly where I was coming from. Oh she had that Rogerian active listening perfected! "So what I hear you saying is..." She supported me in front of the teacher and mediated an agreement. I never consciously made the connection to that incident and my later decision to pursue a career in social work with children and teens. All through undergrad, I went back and forth, English or psychology, psychology or English. Psychology won.
Flash forward to today. After many years as a social worker, I’ve come full circle back to my dream of writing. I am a published author. This morning, I was invited to speak to a group about my publishing journey. Can you guess where this story is going? The group was warm and welcoming, but there she was - my high school English teacher - in the audience, sitting three feet away from me as I prepared to speak. I hadn’t seen her in nearly 30 years. My nemesis!
She didn’t remember me. I was not exceptional. Thousands of students had passed through her classroom. I’m sure she inspired many of them along the way, igniting their interest in the humanities. I took a college humanities class because of her introduction. I have no animosity toward her. She's no longer a teacher fighting for authority; she's a fellow writer navigating the bumpy, humbling publishing path. High school was a long time ago, and I joked about our shared history. We're human. We both had a bad day that turned into an ugly incident. An incident that was turned around by an empathetic vice principal who took the time to listen and advocate for a student during a volatile moment. She not only heard my voice, she elevated it. I remember.
Why am I telling this story? It’s what I do. It’s how I find my voice. How do you find yours? Art, music, drama, building, designing, speaking?
Even now as an adult, I often fail to find my spoken voice. I don't speak up at all, or soon enough, or the words come out wrong. My brain wiring ensures that I will likely spend the rest of my life working on this. Maybe that's my true nemesis.
How ironic that being an author requires speaking about your writing. What a gift that teacher in the audience gave me - to be reminded of a time in adolescence when I spoke up. And was heard, loud and clear. Your voice matters.
Teachers, administrators, school personnel - you have a profound effect on your students in ways great and small. Your quiet students might fly under your radar, but they're paying attention; they remember. You are working with youth during a time of great growth and upheaval. One short incident can have a long trajectory. You have one of the most important jobs in our world. Thank you.
Published on October 27, 2016 13:49
I still run into Mrs. Johnson around town, it's been almost 40 years since I was her student, dementia has challenged her mind, but she still remembers me and cherishes our annual Christmas cards. Last year my kids had the honor of meeting Mrs. Johnson in a chance encounter at a hair salon. When I introduced them to "my all-time favorite teacher" she wrapped them both in her arms, sat them on her lap and spoke soft and gentle encouraging words to each of them. I have no idea what she said in their private conversation as I watched with tears flowing down my cheeks, I only know she made them feel special and wanted and gave them a little lift of confidence to fly.