This is “Mrs. Smith.” She no longer goes by that name, but that’s what I called her when she was my World Literature teacher during my senior year of high school. I enjoyed coffee and conversation with her on the morning this photo was taken, after a series of interesting events. I want to share this story as a way to help us paint a picture of teachers that doesn’t include arming them for battle in schools. Because gun control isn’t just about the people pulling the triggers.
This journey began in her classroom during my final year of high-school. I took a chance and wrote an essay on the current state of politics, likening the earth to a cadaver and George W. Bush Sr. to a maggot that was consuming it with his New World Order. (Stay with me.) I knew it was a metaphorical circus, steeped in macabre references, so I wasn’t sure how it would go over with Mrs. Smith. But it was my senior year, and the risk of a bad grade wasn’t important to me, so I went for it.
While she was handing back our papers, she asked to see me after class. I thought she was going to ask me to see a therapist or something but, instead, she told me how magnificent the paper was. She said it was creative, well written, and courageous. She gave me an “A.”
This was a pivotal moment in my life. She not only encouraged my individuality and set a new foundation for self-confidence, but she inspired me with a credence that I could actually write.
At the time I was the lyricist for my band — a task assigned to me, really, because my bandmates smoked a lot of weed and were better at melting faces with guitar riffs than crafting lyrical poetry. Mrs. Smith’s reaction to my morbid piece on world affairs made me believe my lyrics might actually be good. What’s more, most of my career has been laced with writing, and this was driven in part by her words of encouragement.
Fast forward a couple of decades, to a few weeks before we took this photo. I was reflecting on an article I wrote, which prompted this memory about my talk with Mrs. Smith in her classroom. I decided I wanted to reach out and express my gratitude, and to let her know that she changed my life.
I foraged for a contact form on my high school website and began crafting an email. As I began, I thought about the absurdity of my request: “do you know how to get in touch with a woman with the most common last name in America who worked at your school 25 years ago?” I laughed but sent it anyway.
The next day I received a reply from a woman who said she did have an email on file for Mrs. Smith but didn’t know if it was current. She said she forwarded my email to her, and that if it was current I would probably hear back.
Another day went by and I received an email from Mrs. Smith, who was using her new last name and even a proper first name which was, of course, more appropriate for our connection in my adulthood. We exchanged a few emails to catch up on how our lives unfolded, and she told me how much she appreciated that I reached out with my message. She was in turn inspired by my words of inspiration from her.
She read some of my recent articles, habitually graded them, and handed me a brand new “A.”
A couple of weeks later she reached out to tell me that she was going to be in Portland with her granddaughter, touring a few colleges she was considering attending. She asked if we could meet and talk for a while, and on this morning that manifested.
It turns out that our views of the world are pretty much in alignment, which was fun to learn. And, of course, she’s a master of linguistics, so the conversation was rich with intellectual dialogue. She’s also a super nice lady, and it was so fun to see her.
When I spoke, she looked me in the eyes with attentive intensity. When we were saying goodbye, she thanked me for reaching out to her with my expression of gratitude. She said my email was the one that every teacher wants to receive about their career. That was so awesome to hear. And when I shared this story with a lifelong friend who is now a teacher, he whole-heartedly concurred.
I was reflecting on what it may have been like if Mrs. Smith was wielding an AR-15 rather than a wealth of knowledge. How her views of my paper may have been different if she was on high alert rather than being in a place of receptivity for the creativity of her students. How I may have even been considered a risk rather than an innovative writer. How that would have impacted much of my life, and hers.
Teachers inspire, foster, and encourage. How about we let this be their focus, and bury this nonsense about arming them for K-12 militias.
If you have an inspiring story about one of your teachers, please share. I would love to hear more about how teachers can and have inspired us.