Influences: Of Stories and General Jerkishness

So to truly kick of this whole new world for you and me   direction where I discuss craft and influences a little bit more, I did hunker down and think a lot about where to begin. I’ve talked in the past about my mom being very pro-books, being a library fanatic to the point of getting locked in one as a kid, and growing up a Reading Rainbow addict.

There are other people, though, who may or may not realize the part they’ve played, who may or may not accept the role they played in not only my love of reading, but the formation of the gloriously weird person that I’ve turned into. Yeah, like I’m totally going to claim all of that as my fault. Please. I’m also not going to name names, because I feel like if people don’t have a public personality, sometimes shining a beacon on them is the last thing that they’d actually want, especially if they’re part of something as vast and sundry as the public education system. I’ll leave it up to them to call me out in the comments section or something, heh.

Back in Jr. High, I went through what one might have called a phase of being something of a royal jerk. We all have those phases, and it seems that the twelve and thirteen-year-old bracket is ripe for this part of personality development. Granted, my version of jerkishness was probably tame in comparison to a lot of other people, but I definitely had those smart-alecky moments. I don’t know if growing up a minister’s kid or if growing up in a community where my parents would know what I’d been up to by dinner finally made me lash out a bit at certain points. I don’t know if I was enabled by certain friends,…honestly there’s no point really blaming anyone or anything. It was a part of my growing up, and for the most part I’ve grown out of it.

Granted, I can still rock the sarcasm when I need to, but I consider that a life skill.

There was one English teacher in particular my snark got leveled at. I have no clue why. I don’t know if it was because he was younger than a lot of my other teachers, if he just seemed to rise to the occasion more, or if I was just that cranky by that point in the afternoon. Maybe it was because at that point in life I liked to get the last word, maybe it was because a certain friend and I both had him as a teacher, or maybe it was the sheer fact that he didn’t know my parents so the likelihood of me hearing about what a weirdo I was at dinner every night was less likely with that class.

There was probably no good reason other than he could instigate as well as give it right back (and easily owned me, if one particular prank gone wrong serves my memory right. Thank God I’m not in school these days because I’d probably be in so much more trouble). I went above and beyond to flaunt my smart mouth some days (he usually gave it right back or put the teacher face on so I knew when it was time to shut my mouth). I had him for two years and I tended to get put into class with kids I either didn’t get along with or didn’t know very well, so I’m sure that part of this was also my tendency to overcompensate when I got nervous or felt out of my depth. Seriously, I talk when I’m extremely nervous. I don’t know how people haven’t figured that out by now.

There were times when he would have probably been within rights to give me detention, but it never came to that. At the time i was marginally surprised and relieved that never happened (especially after one incident where I may have helped rearrange the furniture in his room as part of a mass prank), but now I realize that for the most part he handled things his own way. He was fair, and he was probably far savvier than I realized and  knew that kind of retribution would give me a heart attack (the mere thought of it nearly did give me palpitations once). Maybe he just figured it wasn’t worth it in the long run because I was just being a general twerp.

I never quite knew how much he paid attention or how much he was looking out for his students. For every time I got a smart comment thrown back at me or had another student embarrass me on the way in or out of class, I was truly saved from the social fire by this teacher. One time in particular I can remember, we were reading some S.E. Hinton book and going over a chapter, us answering questions we’d already written the answers to from an assignment given the night before. Being the overachiever I am, I had replied to one of the questions with a full block of quotes, including where a character called another a bastard. And being the completely sheltered girl I was back in those days, I totally had no clue how to even pronounce the word, never mind what it meant. I remember him walking by the desks as we all had our hands up to answer, and then he either thought better of it and made sure we knew that we’d better give a paraphrased version of the answer (I still didn’t get it), or something…nevertheless, he didn’t call on me, and whether it was intentional or not, I am forever grateful.

Though if you’ve read some of my darker fiction, you also know that I’ve gotten way better at cursing since then.

As much as he teased, he also championed my dreams of being on the stage. He tried to get me into a public speaking competition, but I think at that point my anxieties about not doing everything right probably got the best of me and I ended up backing out. Up until that point I’d written for fun and I could rock a literature project. I’d had marginal thoughts about being a writer in elementary school, but it wasn’t until he’d submitted some essay that I’d written to a youth magazine that it occurred to me that someone else didn’t feel bothered by having to read what I wrote. I don’t even remember what happened with that, but the result isn’t the point. The point is that someone believing in me woke me up to what was possible.

In general, I learned a lot about people around me in that class, both good and bad. I saw vulnerable sides of people in speeches we had to give, but I also saw how quick some people were to throw others under the bus of social embarrassment. It could not have been easy to constantly teach classes full of kids like that, and he’s still at it, so he probably has like a million gold stars racked up by now.

I also was exposed to some of the best stories in his class, hands down. In a time period where problem literature was the next big thing (and we did read some of that with Pig Man and The Outsiders), he provided us with stories that had depth and meant something. This is the class where I learned to love Greek mythology. This was the class that made me fall in love with Poe, where I first learned to really accept the horror genre as art. To this day I can still recite Robert Frost on a dime because of the poetry section, and I really learned to understand that short stories weren’t less than novels just because they were shorter. To this day I read Hatchet every so often, because we had to read it in seventh grade and I fell in love with it.

In his class I learned to stand up for myself somewhat, as well as shut up. I learned to pay attention to those around me so I could read them better, and by paying attention to the books in front of me I received magic. I was given these wonderful, intriguing stories that would become the building blocks of all the genres I love to play in now, never mind that I had  no intention at the time to ever become a professional writer. This was back when I was convinced I’d be on Broadway by the time I was twenty, when I was laser-focused but still so unsure of myself and didn’t know how to balance out the two sides.

Years later I ran into him while I was working at a professional theatre run out of my university. I don’t remember our talk per say, but I remember finally seeing him as a person, and realizing how lucky I’d been to have him as a teacher. I didn’t get to see him when I was back that way last year, but knowing how things work, I’ll get back that way soon enough. I did email him a bit and he seems to think that he plays a very minor part in these things, and I guess in the scheme of a human life, yeah, okay, any one person is going to have a bit part, more or less. Still, I can’t help but think how things would have turned out if I would’ve had anyone else for English those two years. I may not have fallen in love with the genres I did, or my opinion of myself may have been cultivated in a far more negative way. At any rate, I’m glad he was there at the time. He was a good teacher, and his students are lucky to have him.

That class helped hone my love of stories, helped me understand how to navigate the social waters a little better, and helped me understand that teachers can help in all sorts of different ways, even when you think they’re just being lame. I probably wouldn’t be the person I am if it wasn’t for that teacher, whether he admits to it or not, and I am forever grateful.

2 thoughts on “Influences: Of Stories and General Jerkishness

  1. well-written about navigating the middle school years, describing the nuances of situations that occur in the classroom between students and with the teacher. Interestingly, I had a psychology teacher that helped me learn to appreciate myself and others in the class. He also gave me a desire to want to better understand myself and why people do what they do, so I went on to study psychology in college. I ended up re-connecting with him just recently through Facebook and it’s been fun to see where his life has led him and him to see where my life has led me. Thanks for sharing your story.

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