"Words kill, words give life; they’re either poison or fruit—you choose." (Proverbs 18:21 - The Message)
Sometimes the simplest string of letters can have long lasting impact.
I was reminded recently about a couple of teachers from middle school. Now, you have to realize that middle school was a long, long time ago.
And middle school was its own cataclysmic hotbed of change for me. Not only because of the normal hormones and strangeness that everyone goes through, but my Grandpa - my foster father, one of the centers of my universe - was very ill and passed away when I was in middle school. His illness and passing were some of the most traumatic events of my life.
I was not a very nice kid in middle school. I didn’t know how to deal with the emotions that surfaced at that time. Anger, resentment, jealousy, fear and failure churned in my heart. I think I started to wear black in middle school, but then it wasn’t just because it was easier in my professional world. I wanted to disappear.
I used a lot of drugs and drank a lot in an effort to self-medicate.
I spent a lot of time alone listening to The Doors and wishing I would just fade away.
I read voraciously – sometimes a book a day. All kinds of books, but mostly biographies. I was curious to know how other people lived, the real story behind their fame. I thought, perhaps, I would be famous someday and do something great.
If I could make it through middle school.
Mostly, I didn’t cry. I held those tears in and promised myself I would be tougher, better, stronger than anyone else. I was hard on the outside and made sure everyone knew I was fine. I didn’t need any help or any babying or any attention.
That’s why the teachers who come to mind impress me ever the more. I was a good student, a smart kid, but the surly wall around me was meant to keep them away. If you don’t care for anyone, you can’t lose them, right? That was my philosophy in middle school.
Mr. Campanelli, Mrs. Wendlendt and Mrs. Marks weren’t daunted by my attitude. They saw right through it.
Now, the women I might understand. They were, after all, English teachers and even then English was my easy subject. If anything could get me to discuss coursework, an English lesson could.
But Mr. C? He was a math teacher! I don’t know that anyone ever worked harder to try to help me understand math. He made me want to try to concentrate and follow his rules. More than his teaching, Mr. C. impressed me with his compassion. He is the one teacher who stopped me in the hall the day after the funeral and asked me how I was. He told me if I needed anything to let him know. I can see him there, standing with compassion and sympathy in his eyes. He understood. And he took the risk to reach beyond my anger to tell me so. He didn’t buy the “I’m fine” line.
Mrs. Wendlendt’s classroom was right next to Mr. C. She intrigued me because she was cut from such a completely different cloth from anyone I had ever known. Kind of like Maria von Trapp live and in person. She had been a nun and left to get married and teach. Her hair was short, her clothes were plain, but her face was so amazingly full of expression and life! She loved to tell stories and would read all kinds of things to us.
I don’t remember what the assignment was, but I vividly remember sitting in the back of the classroom with her. In her hand was something I had written with notes along the side in her broad, sweeping penmanship.
“You’re a natural writer, you know,“ She stated the fact as though I, of course, knew this from birth.
“I read a lot so I probably write better.”
“No, that’s not why.” She stretched across my self-deprecation and built a confident bridge, “You have a special talent. You are a writer. I love reading the way you put words together. Someday your words will be read by many people.”
That phrase is etched in my soul and lends itself to my identity.
I think she may have talked to Mrs. Marks, because when I got into her 8th grade English class, she expected me to write. She gave me freedom to expand my writing beyond the assignments and took extra time to read, correct, edit and push me to expound my thoughts. She called me a writer, too.
I had other teachers I will likely write about at another time, but today these are the three angels who come to mind. They believed in me when others looked over me. They reinforced what I learned at home – all people have value, even if they don’t see it in themselves.
I hope a teacher somewhere reads these words today and realizes the ability they have to build, to create, to enforce, to impact the future. I hope whoever reads this today realizes that we are all teachers with the ability to kill or give life to dreams through our words.
You never know who the punk under that black is going to be someday: literary honor student, author.