This week, our editor Tee assigned a Staff Pick for us to write about our favorite teacher, or the one who taught us our most valuable lesson, in honor of National Teacher’s Appreciation Week. I wrote about Mr. Gieselman, my 6th grade teacher, who read The Hobbit out loud to a rambunctious class, and awakened in me what was to become a lifelong love of fantasy fiction.
But as I was thinking back on all the teachers I’ve known, there was one who kept coming to mind that made me genuinely smile, and to whom I owe an immense apology.
My family moved around a lot when I was a kid, rarely staying in one town for longer than two years. I didn’t really mind – I usually was able to fit in with a few bumps here and there; nothing to write a memoir about, at any rate. Still, it means that sometimes I have a hard time placing people and events in a neat, tidy timeline; many of my memories are distinct in the middle, but awfully soft and wobbly at the edges. So although I think I had this teacher in high school, I could possibly be wrong.
Wherever I had her, she was only there for one semester, that I do remember. She taught English literature which was one of my favorite and best classes, so I knew I’d be able to do well regardless of what she assigned. There were other things that I remember about her, as well, but what I don’t remember – and this shames me to this day – is her name.
I think her first name was Carol. That, or Caroline, so some such derivative. Her last name – although I’m sure she was a “Miss”-something – is completely gone from my memory, and that feels so very disrespectful to the woman she was, to what she fell short of, and what she attained.
I remember that she was different. She looked different. She was a tiny little thing, as short or shorter than me, and skinny, almost emaciated. Her bones were thin and fragile, like a bird’s, or an old, old lady’s. She had long hair that was thin yet full; even though I knew she was a young woman, her hair was grey. Completely grey, darker in some places, almost silver in others. To be honest, it looked like witch’s hair, like an illustration in a fairy tale.
Her eyes were huge, extraordinarily so, almost bulbous but not quite. They were far too big for her small face, her tiny frame, and they were pale, pale blue. Or light grey, perhaps, but not a color that would make you think they could ever be thought of as beautiful. They were kind eyes, and you could see the intelligence in them, but even when she smiled they were wide open, with no crinkles, no warming puffs of flesh to cradle them. Had they not been balanced by her love of teaching, they could very easily have been witch’s eyes. Her nose was thin, too, and pointed. A witch’s nose.
But the hardest thing to ignore was that her spine was crooked and her shoulders were bent slightly inward, and on her left shoulder she carried a large, misshapen hump, just like Quasimodo. She often had to walk with a cane which she clutched with a hand that resembled a birdlike claw, and one of her feet would drag slightly, giving her a lumpy walk. When she sat on the edge of her desk she could straighten up, and her long, spindly hair would cover the hump, and except for her large, wide eyes she could almost look “normal” – but she rarely did this. I think she must have often have been in pain as she slowly make her way around the classroom, lecturing or checking our work.
And yet…. and yet she was such a gentle soul. She was kind, and smart, so very smart, and she loved literature, she loved sharing it and teaching it. She did not make any excuses, she did not show weakness, even in that body, and she never, ever invited pity. In fact, she would look anyone straight in the eye, not in combat but in conviction, as if daring all to even try to pity her. I thought she was the most courageous woman I had ever known. I think maybe she still is.
Unfortunately, my high school was not very kind to her. I don’t really blame the kids in total; this was rural Iowa, and so many of them were big, burly farm boys or confident, capable small town girls who knew their strengths and how to play them. Many of the kids were growing up on family farms where the weak and misshapen didn’t survive very long. This wasn’t due to meanness or misuse; it simply was how life played out, often quickly and decisively. They had no basis of respect for the weak, and this teacher had so many manifestations of physical weakness that we all knew her time at our school was doomed from the start.
And yes, my class could be downright mean to her. Not in calling her names or necessarily sassing back, but just in not paying attention, at goofiing off and talking and messing around with each other instead of listening to her. Spitwads, rough housing, yelling, cracking crude jokes, flirting and giggling were the norm, and no one took her lessons, when she was able to actually get any across, seriously. And, to my shame, I would have to include myself in that category, as well. While I may not have been disruptive, I didn’t say, “hey, give her a chance,” or “shut up, I want to hear this,” either.
No, I never stuck up for her when she was trying unsuccessfully to call for quiet or for others to pay attention. And if she left the classroom, I wouldn’t do anything to quell the laughter or the derision that would fill the void of her absence. I just sat there, quietly, sometimes angry, sometimes even complicit, but never making my feelings known, never stepping up to be the champion, if not for teacher then at least for a modicum of education.
I did try to help her, though, even if it wasn’t obvious. I kept quiet myself, and I watched her, my eyes following her as she moved around the room, rather than the distractions many of the other kids were causing. I took notes, even though I never used them. I just wanted her to know someone was paying attention. I didn’t always volunteer in class, but enough that she knew she could call on me if she needed a response. I completed all my assignments, and on time.
And she did notice. She took me aside and told me that I could do better than what she could offer in that class, that I deserved better, and she assigned me books like Catcher in the Rye, The Sound and the Fury, and Call It Sleep, along with Of Mice and Men and The Scarlet Letter that everyone else was reading. She had me write papers and then picked them apart, but always constructively and always with encouragement built in. She pushed me, but only because I wanted her to. She expected a lot of me, but only because she knew it was the best way to help me push myself. She already knew that I believed in myself, but she made it so that I knew exactly why, by helping me realize that throwing yourself into a challenge that you may not fully achieve can be more rewarding that dog-paddling across simplistic finish line.
I think it was during one of the individual critiques she gave me, after class, that she told me her name was Carol. I’m pretty sure – at least I have a strong memory of – her telling me I could call her Carol when we weren’t in class, but I don’t think I ever did. In fact, I think I was embarrassed by her offering that level of intimacy, not because it was too forward or out of line, but because I knew in my heart of hearts that she would be gone soon. And, to be honest, because I pitied her.
I pitied her not because of her pale eyes or her wild hair, her bird-like qualities or the hump on her back that made her so very alien from the hale and hearty bodies around her. I didn’t pity her because she was somehow “less” than anyone else -because she wasn’t – or because she wasn’t as pretty or as ordinary or as “normal” as the rest of us. I pitied her because I knew she was not strong enough to endure there. That no matter how hard she tried, that no matter how brightly her ardor for teaching shone, no matter how hotly the desire to mold and shape young minds might burn in her heart, or how much she loved her subject matter, that she would never be able to control the kids in the classroom, that she would never be able to wrestle their attention away from their adolescent bravado and artlessness. I knew that she would not be able to pass them if they did not do the minimum of work, and yet that if they did not pass, she would be the one to be let go. I knew she didn’t stand a chance in this rural Iowa high school, in that place, in that environment. And I wasn’t so sure that she stood a chance anywhere, just because of the perception of her crooked, frail body.
Even then, I knew how wrong that pity was. How much she wouldn’t have wanted it. How much she didn’t deserve it. I’ll never be able to go back and change that, or to thank her for all that she did give me in that short semester. But looking back, I recognize how much she did taught me, beyond deciphering William Faulkner’s convoluted sentences, beyond learning how to read conceptually, or how to build a strong, persuasive paper. And I can hold on to the realization that, even though I didn’t give her the chance she deserved, even though I was too willing to acquiesce to what I assumed to be impossible, her time as my teacher did change my life. She did make a difference. She did teach me a lesson that I’ll never forget.
That lesson? That no matter what, if you love what you’re doing, you don’t give in. That even if you know you’re up against the odds, you do your job and you do it well. Regardless of what other people may see, or what they may think, if you know what you want to do and you know how to do it, then dammit, you do it. And if you’re asked to leave, you leave with your head held high, proud of the job you’ve done regardless of some mercenary metric that determines an impersonal success or failure. No matter who you are, no matter what you look like, no matter how others perceive you. You do what you love, regardless.
I just wish I could remember her name, so I could thank her. And let her know that she just might be the most courageous woman I’ve ever known.