I have written so many times about the people who changed me and mentored me along the way. Teachers and professors that have impacted my path in ways I could never say thank you. But what about those who have changed you because they challenged you the whole way. Maybe you personally didn’t click or you didn’t necessarily like them, but because of that they pushed you. I never really talk about them much. Wait I take that back, I tell the story all the time to my students of the professor who once told me that I would just always put my family first and for that reason I could not have an academic career teaching the way I wanted and a family.
When I look back at that story and the way that that one comment pushed me I realized that even though I believed much to be wrong with that statement that it gave me drive. It gave me the will and want to prove him wrong. And I honestly believe I have. And I still keep it in the back of my mind as I push forward.
“The greater the obstacle, the more glory in overcoming it.”
But I got word the other day of a surprise death of one of my previous instructors. An instructor that by all accounts I liked. But one who challenged me and one who pushed me hard. It made me take a moment out to think of the people and teachers I have had in my life that have pushed me and challenged me.
This first was my fourth grade teacher Mrs. Meadows. Mrs. Meadows got me on the heels of a big move for my family which also involved a move in schools. The only school I had ever been in since kindergarten and the following year after I had Mrs. Capps for third grade. Mrs. Capps was the first teacher ever to not only recognize my love for writing, but she encouraged it and in her steed I flourished and won awards. That basically to me what the perfect set up to not like what was coming next.
Mrs. Meadows had big 80’s hair. She had blue eye shadow and she loved her darn phonics books. She was tall and lanky and she told us that our fourth grade year would be about mastering (her words) grammar and phonics finally. I didn’t know it then but that was the beginning of a life long struggle for me. She exposed that weakness. I remember our first paper we turned in. We had to write a story about American history and I wrote and created a story about Abigail Adams. I was super excited about her reading my paper and being impressed with my story telling the way Mrs. Capps always was.
But a few days after turning it in I got it back. It was completely marked in red and even had a note on it to see her. So I anxiously waited for the right time to see her and truly thought she was going to tell me my writing was good, but I needed to work on a few grammatical issues. And she did. But she never told me my writing was good. Instead she told me my writing needed A LOT of work and more work then she could do in the classroom. She also went to the effort to set me up with a years worth of hooked on phonics and no I am not joking. That day I went home with a pocket box of 12 workbooks that explored grammar, syntax and the nuance of our English language. I was to work through these books in addition to the work we would do in the class.
God bless my mom who made it fun and tried to see the positive in it and reminded me how much I love to write and pushed that this could just be an extension of that love. And partially she was write. It certainly fulfilled this weird need to practice writing that only I understand now was my inner desire and passion for teaching. I saw the benefits to this idea of skill and drill. But there is a reason that sometimes skill and drill is followed by kills in the education profession.
My belief in my writing abilities was dashed and I truly believed that Mrs. Capps was just being nice and that this Achilles heel of mine would always be there and stop me for the rest of my life. To this day, I still struggle with those words she spoke to me that fourth grade year. Thankfully, I am educated to know my syntax, grammar and usage stems from my background and heritage more than just something being fundamentally wrong. In fact, in my job and in my academic career I will probably always feel non-native because I learned differently. No hooked on phonics program could ever fix that. It is a personal struggle that I proclaim now and just own. I do that for two reasons. The first is it covers me and the second I hope it teaches my daughters and students to be okay with their own nuances. It is okay to not always be standard. In fact, I hope people often strive for differences.
But this professor who passed, I didn’t necessarily care for the subject she taught. For that I feel like when I had her I walked into her classroom with a chip on my shoulder toward her and her content. She was very traditional in a sense for a professor and what I mean when I say that I mean she fits most of what our society says a stereotypical professor should be. She looked the role and talked the role. But the material she taught I had trouble engaging in. I didn’t find it interesting and by the mid point I was looking at a B- in her class. My one and only in my graduate career.
I became frustrated and went to see her in her office. What followed was an hour and half conversation about how when I feel disengaged I need to make a connection to the material. I know this connection. I teach it. I seek it out in my classroom all the time. But that chip stopped it. That chip didn’t let me around it, so I wasn’t seeing it. She printed out articles for me and we talked for along time about how the connection was there and I just had to find it.
We had read Moby Dick previously and then she assigned Ahab’s Wife which is a retelling of Moby Dick from Ahab’s wife’s viewpoint. As I took the info she gave me and the articles she printed out I realized I did have a connection. I began comparing her writing to Louise Erdrich’s, Books and Islands in Objibwe Country, and all the sudden the connections were happening so fast. It was a connection that only I could make but that connection turned me around to an A in the class. At the end of the class this professor pulled me aside and admitted she wasn’t sure I would find my connection because of my resistance to the content she was teaching. She also admitted being proudly wrong. That always meant a lot to me and reminded me that challenge isn’t always a bad thing.
So last week as I sat thinking about the beginning of my PhD program and then this new challenge my job threw at me I wondered if I could accomplish what I needed to accomplish. I was feeling particularly challenged and at a cross roads of my academic career where you are pushed to conform or engage in your own way. I still am there, but as I was thinking that night I began to think of her. I remembered how good pushing myself passed my own boundaries felt. I remember how she nurtured that challenge and made me a better teacher and academic. Then I heard less than 24 hours later that she passed.
This gives me proof to my adage that love always wins. If you follow your heart and if you do it with love, you will win. I didn’t let Mrs. Meadows dampen my own soul for writing. I could have and her voice still is in my head on every public piece of writing I share. But I am still sharing and I am still trying because I love writing. Same goes for the professor who said my motherhood would get in the way of career and the same for the professor who made me see that the connections are mine to mine and not anyone elses. That is love. Love of a career. Love of academics and love of writing.