Refine. Hone. Distill. The self is a text, too.
While I didn’t get this post up in time for yesterday’s National Teacher Day, this entire week is devoted to recognizing and expressing gratitude for extraordinary educators.
Although I have had a slew of wonderful teachers, two women are responsible for molding my love of language and literature, and I owe them both acknowledgement and unending thanks.
First, of course, is my mother. As my previous homeschooling posts have mentioned, my mom was almost entirely responsible for my education from kindergarten to twelfth grade, and her devotion to this endeavor is something for which I will be forever grateful. She taught me to enjoy curiosity and to see learning as both exciting and, on some level, as a way to acquire power over fear — at a young age, I knew that if I understood something more, I would have less reason to fear it, and it would lose its ability to frustrate and confound me. This was an invaluable perspective to have throughout my post-adolescent development, and it has supported me through both academic and professional pursuits that were more than a little intimidating.
There is also no way to exaggerate my mother’s influence on my reading life. As far back as I have memories, there’s my mom, reading to me. She filled our house with the written word: newspapers, Highlights and National Geographic, shelves upon shelves of books in every room of the house. We were at the local library weekly and, to this day, greet librarians who have known and helped us for more than twenty years. [Update
After leaving for college, I majored in English, mostly because I had no idea what I would want to do at age 18 that I would still want to do decades later, but also because I knew that the only thing I couldn’t live without is reading and writing, communicating and sharing stories.
And then I met my adviser, Dr. Mary Theresa Hall.
This woman would come to be both my mentor and motivator during the next four years.
The first time that I thought about teaching English was during student presentations in Dr. Hall’s British lit. course. One young man (who was the stereotypical Western PA male without the least bit of interest in art or literature as it didn’t include camo gear and a gun) offered an interpretation of John Donne’s “The Flea.” While the class wasn’t persuaded of his thesis by the end (that the poem clearly demonstrated Donne’s homosexuality), I was impressed by his enthusiasm, his interest, and the resulting research and effort he had invested in the project.
I wanted to do that, to be that, to inspire students to think and to care about the things people take the time to write down, and to understand that what they have to record is worthwhile, too.
For four years, I watched Dr. Hall write on blackboards with such enthusiasm that the chalk splintered and flung pieces around the room. She challenged my skills in writing, researching, and analyzing, and often gave me grades lower than what I thought I deserved because she knew I was “capable of more than that.” My sophomore year, she told me to never devalue academic community and conversation, and insisted that I present a paper at an English conference at Edinboro University.
Not only did this exceptional woman ensure that I possessed the technical skill to execute my ideas, but she also gave me the courage to believe that my contributions were valuable — no — essential to the diversity of perspective. Long before Neil Gaiman reminded us that only we are capable of bringing our viewpoints to the world, Dr. Mary Theresa Hall ingrained that belief in me, along with both the ability and the impetus to participate.
So, during Teacher Appreciation Week, I’m reminded how indebted I am to these women, my mom and Dr. Mary Theresa Hall, who taught me to value all stories, all opportunities to learn, and all opportunities to speak.
How were you influenced by your teachers? What subjects, what lessons did they teach you for which you will always be thankful?