29 January 2014

To a Superb Langauge Arts Teacher

Dear Mrs. Becker,

I kind of feel like time is running out. When I was in your class all those years ago in elementary school, I promised that if I ever wrote a book, I would dedicate it to you. I'm within striking distance. It might be a few more years, but it's going to happen, and it's going to be the first of a lovely career, and even though there are so many others who have helped and loved me along the way, it would be right for your name to have the epigraph page all to itself.

I love words. I can't say I wasn't predisposed toward them even before I arrived in your classroom with the dusty computers and light from the previous decade, but I found the vocabulary tests thrilling. They showed how big the world must be, for there must be a thousand ways to use each of them. If there were so many words in the world, there must be such wonderful nooks and crannies from whence they came. Discovering them depended on these words.

You taught us mythology and Shakespeare. O, raptures, to trace such beloved storylines back to a fond time in one's youth, from whence it is easy to remember and love things; remember that you love them. I can see in my mind the dot-matrix printed title page to the mythology packet you prepared for us: "It all started with a beauty contest." I would not realize for many years the impact of this great golden apple on the whole of Western Civilization, including my own life, but there you were, feeding it to us in delicious slices.

Under your tutelage, we lived in stories and explored relationships with peers by acting in plays. We became grammarians, beholden to the division of meaning given us at Babel. We read important books; I still regret faking my way through A Tale of Two Cities in sixth grade and still wish I really had really read all of it. You used to say, "Tough potatoes, tough bananas, tough whatever-you-like," and we knew it was a good lesson that we should learn. And of course, you encouraged our writing.

One day in particular, though, a day I felt low and ridden with the angst of pre-teen self-loathing, I sat by a window doing my homework and not paying attention to passers-by. Later in the day my father repeated to me an exchange he'd had with you: you told him you had walked by and seen me, a student you had known for years, but had not recognized me at that particular angle, or maybe a curtain of hair hid my face. You'd asked yourself who that beautiful young woman was, and then you saw that it was me.

You did that for your students. You saw us and knew us to be beautiful. What you taught us was real and we knew, because you trusted us with that which was real and beautiful in the world, that we, too, must be real. We mattered. We would change and then you would see us again.

I remember thinking, as a child, that you must be old. Forgive me. Maybe all children think this way about their teachers. Children have no idea of the pace time uses as life stretches on. I don't know how old you are now, or where you live, or how to find you, and I worry that I never will find you or just miss you when this thing goes to print, so I want to write it now.

To Irene Becker, who first made this real.

Is that schmaltzy enough for you? Too much? Good. I don't care. Anyway, I might change my mind on the exact copy some time between now and when the manuscript is finished, which is plenty of time to consider the perfect phrasing of one atomic sentence (or is it?). I wanted to "get something down on paper"* as you so often exhorted us to do. I've finally learned my lesson on that one. I wish I could take all your classes over again or somehow relive those afternoon hours in that weird old brick building. Thank you for encouraging children. Thank you for loving us in your tough way. Thank you for loving important things in a way that we could love them too.


*Funny, considering the medium, and what I am dearly trying to do is to get something down on paper.