A teacher’s note

Just before summer break one year, my high school English teacher wrote these for every student in her class. Each note was unique to the student and expressed some of her thoughts about them. They were carefully written and intended to inspire. It was the end of the semester and also served as a form of going away gift. She was moving and wasn’t going to be a teacher at the school anymore.

I enjoyed her class. That year, I was just getting into reading more. I was learning to enjoy writing and the process of effectively communicating my thoughts with the pen. This class and this year was when I started to actually excel in the subject. In school and life in general, I was getting more confident and better at almost everything I tried. My writing and artistic skills made me enjoy English class even more. I actually liked reading and doing literary analysis on the books and short stories we read: The Scarlet Letter, East of Eden, Of Mice and Men, The Great Gatsby. I participated in class and tried my best to interject where I could with analysis, humor and introspections on the pieces we read.

I always thought she was a good teacher. One could tell she believed it to be important. She taught with a certain reserved passion. Soft-spoken, yet direct and purposeful with her words. She seemed like a content person, and I couldn’t imagine her actually being angry. Mostly, she wanted everyone to learn. Like most teachers, she appreciated class participation. I tried to speak up as often as I thought I could add value, or when I thought I might have something profound to say (ha). After a while in the class, it seemed she was interested in what my thoughts were, often directing questions to me and encouraging me to speak up. This was certainly significant to me.

She had creative ways to involve the class in activities and projects. She had us do literary analysis on our favorite songs and their lyrics, which we burned to CDs and turned in to her to listen to. I think it was partly for us to have an interesting exercise to complete and partly because she wanted to know what type of music her students listened to.

At another point, she had us create an art piece of some kind for The Scarlet Letter, with some meaning behind it based on the text. I hand-drew a movie poster, Star Wars style with all the main characters dramatically overlayed upon the title of the book. Hester was in the middle with the “A” on her chest, desperately clutching it as she stared up into the heavens. The Reverend fell into an abyss in the foreground. The daughter, Pearl, stood menacingly in the background, her shadow the form of a demon on the wall behind her. I spent many hours on it, not even realizing it because I was enjoying it so much. I distinctly remember this. I hadn’t seriously drawn anything in many years, a childhood passion lost to the passage of adolescence. When I brought it in, she thought it was well made and made a point to show the class my work. Everyone was pretty surprised I spent so much time on it and also that I could actually draw well (a well-hidden talent at that point I suppose). Most of everyone else’s art projects were more simplistic, construction paper, posters and whatnot. She ended up hanging it up on one of the tack boards in class for the rest of the year. I was proud of that. Later that year, when she had everyone anonymously write something nice or unique about everyone else in the class, I remembered getting mine and pretty much all of them said either one of two things: “funny” or “can draw well.”

~

I am glad I kept this note. I remember reading it the first time and immediately feeling its profound effect. It was a personalized message from a person I respected. I was flattered. I have come to understand it better and appreciate it all the more in the years hence. This appreciation dawns not necessarily from just the words and what they meant to me, but the fact that she took the time to write these little notes at all, and for everyone. They were filled with the care and purposefulness only a teacher like her could employ. The sincerity was felt in the words and I think everyone was surprised at how perceptively accurate she was on people’s specific personality traits and inspirations. She was able to convey all of this, to several classes of students each with unique characteristics, in a couple of lines of printed text on a small slip of computer paper. I put it on my board in my room at home, read it occasionally, and have since taken a picture of the note, so as to never forget it. It reminds me of what is true about myself, especially during that year. I think now more than ever, I really need to focus on keeping these things in mind, so as to not lose myself to the spells of lowness and inertia I am often prone to. I don’t know how many others in the class kept their notes from her, or deeply considered the gesture beyond that day. But she should rest assured that she had a lasting effect on at least one of her students.

This was written by a person, for all intents and purposes who didn’t actually know me that well. Yet it resounds as meaningful truth to me even now. Relative to my friends and acquaintances I interacted with and have since entered and exited from my life, there is probably no passage which, underneath its concise simplicity, better captures what I believe are some of my foundational characteristics as a person. The point is, these words spoke to me and still do. It’s clear she was mindful about what she was saying, considering each of her students in a benevolently critical light. Even if it only took a few minutes to write, it was / is impactful. That isn’t something I can take lightly or something that is often found in another person’s relative thoughts. I’m not trying to say anything here other than this note was important to me, and it was important because it was / is accurate about me. It highlights my true character and ultimately, my real desire: for my voice to be heard.
~

“Your depth of thought and quick grasp of literature is demonstrated in your writing.

— This was self-validating concerning the work I put in that year. So much reading and writing, and more reading — the end game: mostly because I enjoyed getting lost in story. But also, I found, to improve upon my own craft. I really enjoyed writing about my reading. The whole literary analysis thing I did grasp rather quickly. That was true. Simply put, it’s difficult to comprehend just how much better I actually felt about my writing and comprehension of literature through this class. Reading so much more had a profound effect on the quality of my thinking of the art. This occurred not just in the classroom either. That year was also when I started consciously choosing to read on my own time. It started with the Forgotten Realms Drizzt book series my older brother had left behind while in college. Soon after, I began getting into science fiction (DuneEnder’s Game, 2001: A Space Odyssey), and graphic novels (Batman, Watchmen). All of this became manifested in the way I wrote. My performance in the class and my writing showed this, and a teacher’s appreciation in this way was meaningful to me.
~

“You are gifted in articulation.”

— For perhaps the first time, in junior year English I felt truly comfortable consistently speaking aloud (in a serious, non class-clownery manner) and carrying on reasoned conversations in class. Speaking and having in-depth discussions with my classmates and the teacher was something I came to excel in and truly enjoy. But such a feat wasn’t always possible for me. I had to develop my ability to articulate my thoughts and words to other people, like anyone else. But more importantly, I had to inspire confidence within myself that my thoughts were even worthy of being shared. I have always lacked self-confidence (for a variety of reasons). I often didn’t really have a good rationale for the thoughts in my head to escape and manifest themselves in the world, outside of smaller environments and with my close friends. What did I truly have within me that was unique to offer? And now in this class, with some confidence and some newfound knowledge, I had gained a solid footing in this regard and became someone who spoke up often.
~

“I appreciate your down-to-earthness and willingness to examine and analyze — as well as your humor :)”

— In this class specifically, I was more introspective and calm, much more so than I was oft to be with my inner circle of friends and in other environments. Thus, this “down-to-earthness” perspective was reasonably accurate I guess. But it was just as much a part of my social evolution and personality, as was the at times crazy/shouty/over-the-top Dylan some of my best friends really knew. I cared about the things we learned and discussed in class (and many others seemingly didn’t), so my examinations of topics and participations in class were a pointed realization of this inner curiosity. A sense which apparently the teacher had taken note of. Humor, the ability to make people laugh, is in my opinion, really just an understanding of how people think. That is, in order to make someone laugh you really have to understand what someone finds funny. Honestly speaking, this is something I have always had an innate sense of and as a result, I’ve always been able to make people laugh. I derive great pleasure from it and also love to laugh. And with the improved self-confidence I had gained, it was something that was often on display in this very class.
~

“You are individual of conviction and keen insight :: may you avoid the trap of remaining a critic.

— At this part, she enters into a form of criticism. Despite my calm in-class demeanor and at-times reserved literary analysis, I am also a person of principle. When I felt strongly about something, I would speak with conviction and try to stay true to what I believed to be right. However, at the same time, my inner cynicism likely reared its head, about the world and my thoughts concerning other people. I was surprised to see she had even picked up on this, my inner skepticism, and even cynicism. Avoid the trap of remaining a critic. This is a concept I had never seriously considered within myself, as a “critic.” As well as, in such a consistent role, maybe being something I might need to reign in. But after some reflection, I could see its truth. Someone who only seeks shortcomings or the darkness within the world, will miss the light altogether. Eventually, if one is so focused on the dark, it will be all they ever see. She understood that I was critical in my attempted understanding of literary concepts, as well as people, even from such small experience. Perhaps in her wisdom, first or second-hand, she saw it could lead me down a path of continual criticism, towards an ill-fated pessimism. These words also made me consider how easily I reveal this side of myself unintentionally with my interactions with other people. Most importantly, it helped reveal to me the limitations and dangers of consistently wielding such a perspective. Even if she didn’t understand the history or the underlying reasons, she had captured a large part of my consciousness here and had given me some sound food for thought. I have reflected on this considerably.
~

“…and utilize these gifts to change and contribute to the world around you. Your voice needs to be heard.”

— This part got to me. One’s “gifts” need to be discovered, utilized, and contributed to the world. I believe this is a truth all people must bear, with simple grace or years of searching, seeking and perhaps never discovering the purpose of one’s gifts and how they can be used to the end self-actualization. We are all bestowed with gifts, the ingredients in the all-important journey of self-discovery. Discovering our gifts, feeling enough efficacy in our environment through experience and confidence to use them, then harnessing and refining these gifts to their fullest extent — this is a goal everyone certainly has. And for the short time we have here, hopefully, we can use them to contribute to our circles of influence in a positive way, on some scale. Essentially, this reads: Achieving your destiny. This is perhaps the meaning of life itself, and the highest calling each person has in a lifetime. And here, the words call on me for this purpose. Even if it seems implicit, even self-evident, this concept of using your gifts and contributing to the world around you is an imperative factor in our well-being among others. I sincerely think that everyone should be hearing these words from someone other than their own self; someone important in each person’s life should express this same sentiment to them, perhaps often. Someone should be telling everyone this.
~

“Your voice needs to be heard.”

This is the paradigm shift I have constantly wrestled with, my muse and nemesis all throughout my short life thus far. This sentiment of my voice, and the lack of its steady presence in my many different worlds I inhabit, is at times damning, immobilizing me to a state of depressive angst. Other times, my need and my will to shout out into the world provides the ultimate liberation of my soul in times of the maximal expression I am capable of. Voice is essential to emotional well-being, to self-discovery, to individuation, I know; it could be the most important thing there is. My self-confidence has long been volatile, fluctuating from highs and lows, it rises and falls, it’s absenteeism and lack of any semblance of realistic expectation or predictability has always dwelled in my darkest moments, to test me and shake me into temporary bouts of apathy.

“Why would anyone care what I think?”

What makes me the man for the job?

Why would they want to know me?

How am I going to do something like that?

I can’t.

Maybe next time.

What am I thinking?

I’ll just stay here.

Sometimes, I just can’t get out of my own mind.

I do have a voice and my own mind, my restlessness, my self-doubt, my existential inertia, my everything, has often silenced it. And yet, in exhilarating moments of efficacy — I can affect true positive influence upon my peers and surroundings in thoughts, words, and actions. When I actually take part and manifest myself in the world, reinforcing this idea of my voice being heard — it is good. And I want more of it.

But like I’ve said, I struggle with it. And the darkness always returns. It’s a tide.

~

I might be reading too much into all this, but regardless the words are there and can be read again and again, new meanings derived from unintentional conveyances, but no less true to the reader.
{~ A potential creed of the literary analyst ha.}

This high school English teacher, this young woman, this person understood, somehow. Without even knowing it, these words were exactly the thing I needed to hear. And the thing I need to continue hearing.

My voice does need to be heard.

My voice is essential.

I will continue reading these words, like a mantra, in the hopes that one day — I won’t have to anymore.

~ written in 2012

~ cover art by Yegvenia Watts