My freshman year of college I signed up for an independent study in creative writing. Once a week I’d walk across campus to an old, stone mansion. Up flights of stairs so narrow you had to flatten yourself against the wall to let someone else pass. To an office on the top floor crammed with books on shelves, tables and often the chairs. I’d bring printouts of my latest poems, Professor Ann Ferguson would brandish a red pen, and we’d drink coffee and snack on gingersnaps while playing with words.
Professors and teachers played an integral part of my journey as a writer from the day my third-grade teacher, Ms. Pruzan, asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. “A New York Times Bestselling Author,” I proclaimed. To her credit, she didn’t blink or launch into all the practical reasons that this was an impossible dream. Instead, she let me use free time during class to write, then later read my stories to the class during reading time. I drafted friends into making cardboard costumes and acting out scenes in front of the class. She encouraged a creative child who lived in a world of castles, dragons, and fairies to turn those flights of fancy into stories that welcomed others into her world.
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In high school, I don’t think I ever ate in the lunchroom. My ninth grade English teacher, Mr. Balla, would let me pound away at his computer’s keyboard, saving short stories and novels on 3.5” discs. This was before computers were so common as to be in the library or a lab. By that point, my friends thought I was weird. While not teased or made fun of, I drifted on the outskirts of various groups. A friend on the cheer squad, some orchestra geeks, the fifth-year senior skater girl. Often, the characters I’d created were more ‘real’ to me than flesh and blood people.
Quirky or weird, precocious or annoying, the adjectives chosen to describe me shaped me far less than the teachers who encouraged my writing. Even though they were only in my life for a year or a semester, they had a lifelong impact. I remember their names and faces, in some cases more than twenty years later.
Would I still be a writer if they hadn’t been in a life? Probably, given my massive drive to create. But there’s the chance that I might have given up after the hundreds and hundreds of rejections. I might have kept my words to myself rather than face the criticism of the anonymous trolls of the Internet. Or I might have believed the snotty English major, beloved by the department, who mansplained to me all the difficulties of getting published and told me how I’d never ‘make it,’ though he, of course, could have sold a novel if he was willing to sell out. When my novel published in 2005 I put an announcement in the alumni publication. A very petty part of me hopes that he saw it.
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But rather than play the game of ‘what if’s,’ I’d prefer to publicly thank them, and all teachers, for the enormous positive impact that they can have on my life and the lives of fanciful children everywhere. My mother taught kindergarten for twenty-five years. She’d often joke that she never could learn how to color between the lines, so she never graduated. Both my grandmothers spent their careers as teachers introducing children to a love of reading and science. Given my love for them, I’m predisposed to think highly of the profession.
I witnessed their sacrifices – whether it was my mother buying school supplies with her own money, or sitting on the couch cutting out countless shapes of paper penguins and prepping art projects or my grandmother leveraging every publisher’s reward program to get books for her classroom – and heard them talk about budget cuts, strikes and salary negotiations. I’d get angry on their behalf when I heard politicians discuss their quote-end-quote greed for wanting a decent salary. Teachers are alternately praised for influencing the next generation and then sneered at for wanting to be paid for the privilege. I’m one hundred percent biased towards praise and admiration.
The people in our lives who are worthy of celebration, the people for whom we’re grateful, are rarely sports stars and celebrities. Their names aren’t widely known and they’ll never be on the cover of a tabloid. But most of us can name one teacher, if not many more, who saw our gifts and offered kind words, extra time, and the support we might have needed to keep chasing our dreams. Their positive impact is immeasurable. It shines brighter than any star atop any Christmas tree this holiday season.
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