Just before summer break one year, my high school English teacher wrote these for each student. Each note was unique to the student and expressed some of her thoughts. 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. Ms. Conn 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, always tried to enjoy writing and be effective at 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 with analysis, humor and introspections on the pieces we read. I always thought she was a good teacher, you could tell she thought it was important. And she taught with a certain reserved passion. She was soft spoken, but 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 (heh). 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.
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 over the title of the book. Hester was in the middle with the A on her chest she was desperately clutching as she stared up into the heavens, the Reverend falling into an abyss in the foreground and the daughter standing 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 to class, Ms. Conn thought it was well made and showed the class. 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, 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 Ms. Conn 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 from Conn. 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. Not necessarily just the words and what they meant to me, but the fact that she took the time to write these little notes for everyone. They were filled with the care and purposefulness only a teacher like Ms. Conn could employ. The sincerity was felt in the words and I think everyone was surprised at how perceptively accurate she was on everyone’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, but she should know 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 it’s concise simplicity, better captures what I believe are some of my foundational characteristics as a person. The point is, these things and the words on it spoke to me and it still does. It’s clear Conn thought about what she was saying. Even if it only took a few minutes to write, it is profound. 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 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 to improve upon my craft. I really enjoyed it and I did grasp it 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. Reading so much more had a profound effect on the way I thought. (And not just in the classroom, that was also when I started reading on my own time, the Forgotten Realms book series Kevin had left behind while in college and also began getting into science fiction and fantasy literature (Dune, Ender’s Game, 2001: A Space Odyssey), and graphic novels (Batman, Watchmen)). It 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 it wasn’t always possible for me. I had to develop my ability to articulate my thoughts and words to other people, but more importantly I had to inspire confidence within myself that my thoughts were even worth 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 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 class and with Ms. Conn I was more introspective and calm, than I was oft to be with my inner circle of friends. 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, which apparently Conn took 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. With the improved self-confidence I had gained it was something that was often on display in this English class.
“You are individual of conviction and keen insight :: may you avoid the trap of remaining a critic.”
— this part she enters into a form of criticism. Despite my calm in-class demeanor and at-time reserved literary analysis, I am also clearly 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 what I think about people. I was surprised to see Conn even picked up on this, my inner cynicism and skepticism. Avoid the trap of remaining a critic. This is a concept I had never seriously considered within myself, as a “critic”, as well as that being something I might need to reign in. But after some reflection I can see its truth. Someone who only seeks shortcomings or darkness, can miss the light altogether. Eventually, if one is so focused on the dark, it will be all they ever see. Conn understood that I was critical in my attempted understanding of literary concepts and people, even from such small experience, and that could lead me down a path of continual criticism and pessimism. It has 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, Ms. Conn 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. My “gifts” need to be discovered, utilized, and contributed to the world. 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 self-actualize within your life. It’s the all important journey of self-discovery. Discovering our gifts, feeling efficacy in our environment through experience and confidence, harnessing and refining these gifts — this is a goal everyone certainly has. And for the short time we have here, hopefully we can use them to influence the world in a positive form, 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, self-evident, this concept of using your gifts and contributing to the world around you — I sincerely think that everyone should be pushed and 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 concept is at times damning, immobilizing to me and also the ultimate liberation of my soul in times of the maximal expression I am capable of. 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?
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.
Ms. Conn 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 important.
I will continue reading these words, like a mantra, in the hopes that one day — I won’t have to anymore.
cover art by Yegvenia Watts
(written in 2012)