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She was determined to get the real, the grit, the rawness out of me. She wanted me to rip off the bandage and see the crusty wound underneath. “Stop wrapping up your writing in a cutesy little bow,” I imagined her saying. “Give me less sweet lemonade and more vodka; let your stories pour,” she was always pushing me. She taught life. She shared the real stuff of her life: her dog, the books she loved, her dying mother. Her teaching was up close and personal, a hand on a shoulder to make sure I was not just hearing but also understanding. She smelled like Folgers Coffee, Marlboro cigarettes, and Nicorette gum. She was gruff, in-your-face, and when I was a freshman she scared the shit out of me, as did the painting on her podium of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.” Her teaching philosophy echoes in me.
My English teacher saved me. In high school I locked myself in the stall when I didn’t have to pee. Sometimes I pressed my forehead to the metal stall to feel the coolness when I felt dizzy. Sometimes I wiped the sweat that wouldn’t stop dripping from my body. Sometimes I simply stared at the walls of the stall, especially the second to the last one’s graffiti that declared Melissa K. was a four-letter word. Then after throwing up and shivering and trembling, I turned the faucet as hot as it would go and held my hands under the stream. I looked in the mirror, smoothed my hair, wished I wasn’t here and wasn’t me. But in her class, being pissed off at the world meant you had usable material. In her class I was free to dream and create and hate and did not have to pretend to be okay. And the only class you had to act in was her drama class.
She could act, though, really act. We were cast as Babe and Lenny McGrath in Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart. Though I was merely in high school and she was nearing retirement, the play made us sisters. Ironically, she saves me in the play, too. She pulls my head out of the oven. In the play, she basically tells me that although my life is screwed up, it does still have purpose. She needed this play to be her life; she needed her part to be perfect. She needed an outlet for her passion. She was probably tired of dealing with students who didn’t possess any. She performed her lines with different emphasis trying to get the sound, the meaning, the feeling just right. She wrote an eleven page character synopsis to get herself into character. She asked for suggestions and then got mad for not thinking of them herself. I saw myself in her. I was fascinated by her friends—the characters that made up the rest of the cast–from the moment I met them. They lived unapologetically–on purpose–with an appreciation for the arts that seeped into every aspect of their lives. I loved them for the way they laughed their gritty, gravelly laughs and told me inappropriate things. I loved them for the way they forgot I was sixteen and offered me mimosas at cast parties. I loved them for showing me life was more than high school. She was my teacher, my favorite, my sister, my friend.
I think she wanted me to be on Broadway or on some best seller list. She was surprised I wanted to be like her; she was shocked I applied for her job position. I always thought she knew everything, and I think she had a hunch I would not get the job. She knew I never fit in at Edwards County High School. She knew I never would. Except for the sanctuary of her classroom, the school’s walls always felt like a prison to me. I know she wanted future English students to be free, alive, messy, silly, inspired, deep, and different. She knew I’d continue her unconventional legacy. She knew I’d be damned before I let a student tiptoe through learning. She knew I was too much like her, too fiery for this town. She sat in on my interview anyway, nodding her head with a proud smile on her face and knowing she created me. I hope she knows her techniques still live. In whatever classroom I teach, my students and I get out of our seats. We laugh real laughs. We sit in a circle. We read Shakespeare aloud. We act out stories. We have the sacred writing time which I believe saves their jaded high school selves. We share. Rules are broken. Pages are curled, passages are starred and underlined and chewed on, metaphorically. We ask and answer tough questions, tough life questions. Coffee splatters and worthwhile comments dribble down their essays. I fight, like she fought, against censorship, against normalcy, against apathy, against policy, against playing the education game. I loathe the standardized tests that tell my students how to think and lock them back inside the box I try to lure them out of every day. But the school board and the administration do not know what students need. They wanted someone less like her, less like me. They wanted someone who wouldn’t rock the metaphorical boat on the pedagogical sea.