Most all of us artists recall the time in our lives, if not the exact moment, when we decided to be an artist. Although I’ve written for as long as I can remember, there was a pivotal moment when I had an epiphany, if you will, (though it came to me slowly), one that kindled my creative side so thoroughly I would never recall a time when I didn’t write.
This epiphany wasn’t a sudden, fully-formed story magically appearing before my eyes, I had not been wondering what I’d do with my life. I was 17-years-old, a senior in high school, when my English/Lit teacher, Mrs. Barrett, asked me to stay after class one afternoon.
I knew I wasn’t in trouble, I didn’t sit through class trying to figure out what she wanted. It was near the end of the school year, I’d be graduating in a few weeks. Throughout my last year of high school I’d assisted the junior English/Lit teacher and the drama coach with whatever they needed – grading papers, planning lessons, coaching freshman on acting. I expected Mrs. Barrett wanted to ask me to help one of them.
But when the students filed out that day and I walked to Mrs. Barrett’s desk she jumped out of her seat, and her round face shone a broad smile as she exclaimed, “Oh! Deanna! Oh Deanna, Deanna, Deanna!” She bounced around on her little feet while shuffling through stacks of papers on her desk. Finally she found what she’d been looking for – my Stories and Poems notebook for the year. It was bright orange and held so many loose papers the spine had torn. Mrs. Barrett must’ve been the one to tape it back together for I didn’t remember doing that. She held it to her chest with the cover facing me. Throughout the year as I added more and more pages, I also applied various stickers to the cover, whatever caught my eye at the moment. Now a goofy-looking monkey, pouting, presented an empty banana peel to me.
“Deanna!” Mrs. Barrett said again as she sat the folder on her desk and riffled through the papers while I stood bewildered, wondering what on earth I’d done to cause such excitement. Maybe she was just celebrating the fast-coming end of the school year? But no, in a moment she pulled a page from the notebook, a poem I had written the previous week called Strawberry Fields. I saw a long note in red ink written down the right side margin, taking up every bit of white space I’d left. Now I was nervous, licking my lips, beginning to sweat.
Mrs. Barrett handled the paper carefully, as if afraid she might tear it, and as she presented it to me she leaned towards me and took hold of my forearm. I felt she was about to tell me the secret to a long life. This is what she said: “Not just this poem Deanna, which is beautiful, but everything in this notebook, everything you’ve written this year is proof that you need to reach out and pursue a career as a writer.”
I stood dumbfounded, staring at my favorite teacher with my mouth hanging stupidly open. She moved her hand from my arm to my shoulder. “Just think about it,” she said, “we all have the opportunity to follow our dreams and do what we want to do. I know you have several career ideas in mind right now,” (I’d expressed interest in becoming an interior designer, among a few other occupations), “but,” she went on, “you are destined to be a writer Deanna, I can feel it in my bones.”
I glanced down and saw that she now held my wrists in her warm hands and she was gently shaking them with each word. “You are very talented. Don’t let anything stop you.” She dropped her hands to her sides and stood back, looking over me like I was her little angel she’d just dressed up for a party. I was so touched, but I had never been very good at taking compliments and I had no idea how to respond. I felt anything but intelligent in that moment. Eventually I stammered a ‘thank you’ and went on to my next class.
In the nearly twenty-five years since that conversation I’ve thought often of Mrs. Barrett, especially when I have one of those “Oh, yes!” moments that sends me flying to the keyboard or the notebook to record the idea before I lost it. My senior English/Lit teacher is by far the greatest reason I felt confident enough to pursue writing, I will forever appreciate that she took the time to talk to me that day, that she felt strong in her conviction that I should write, and that she cared enough to share that thought with me.
Mrs. Barrett passed away last week but she will always be close to my heart. As we celebrate the superior teachers of our nation during National Teacher Appreciation Week, May 6th – 10th, (National Teacher Day is May 7th ), remember not only to thank your children’s teachers, but also to thank the teachers who have guided your life in significant ways.
Who was, or is, your favorite teacher? What makes them so special to you?
Thank you to all my sons’ teachers and thank you to Mrs. Barrett and the many other teachers I had the privilege to learn from throughout my life!