It’s a feel-good story, albeit cheesy, about how a tomboyish stub of a girl wound up with allegedly the worst teacher in history, spent a whole summer whining (“They should call her Mrs. Hinney!”), then admittedly grew to love her. And most importantly, found a love for the arts. Mrs. Hinds was in her seventies when I had her, and those first few autumn months, I kept a list in my desk of how many times she said a few key phrases:
Slow as molasses in the wintertime.
I want to be able to hear a pin drop.
You’ve won a round-trip ticket to Woxall. Woxall, by the way, being here:
There is nothing but a post office.
And while it was easy to make fun—who was this ancient woman? and what was with all the neon blue eye-shadow? and why couldn’t girls ever answer first (in retrospect, likely a little generational sexism)?—it was in Mrs. Hinds’ classroom that I realized my love of writing. More than my love of writing, really, because every afternoon, Mrs. Hinds left a stack of papers on the air-conditioner against the farthest wall: here were strange pictures—pulled pre-Internet, somehow—with ample room to write. Here were maps of countries that never existed and sentences that began, “The unicorn story starts simply enough.” Here were a whole selection of fun and inspiring writing exercises, perfect for a third grader, and I couldn’t get enough.
I wrote books—whole colorful Lisa Frank binders full of imaginative stories, and sometimes not-so-imaginative stories. I wrote about my brother shooting me in the eye with a slingshot. I wrote about my great-grandmother dying, how I read a speech at her funeral because I felt like someone should. I wrote about baking my only pet in the sun—Brownie, a guinea pig—because I was too lazy to go outside and I wrote about Isaac Martin, who I found dreamy, like, super dreamy.
Now a teacher in my own right, I realize Mrs. Hinds likely committed to this hour of quiet writing not because it instilled creativity, but because it meant, for her, a quiet respite away from twenty-five hectic third graders. But that doesn’t change how much I loved it. Every day, I had the opportunity—just after recess and before social studies—to mine whatever small caves had already opened inside my soft, young brain, and I extracted from them stories of mythic love, mythic creatures, mythic lands. I wrote on an alternate space, an oven that could bake anything, and when finally the school year drew to an end in early June, I spent my summer crafting a one-hundred page novella—typed, single-spaced and in size 12-font, nearly the longest work I’ve written to date—that later got me enrolled in the Gifted Program, an elite group of students praised both for their intelligence and their expensive Nikes. These were students who taken on day trips not to Woxall at all but to the Philadelphia Zoo and the Please Touch Museum.
“It’s clear,” the administrator said, “you have some sort of gift.”
But I didn’t have a gift. It was plain to me even then that what I had had was an inspiring teacher, a woman who went above and beyond mere expectations, a woman who likely spent whole Saturdays sitting a wooden desk in a near-empty elementary school, drawing countries that didn’t exist and photocopying them in stacks by the hundreds. What I had had been drawn singlehandedly out of me by Mrs. Hinds, and I wanted to draw it out of everyone. inspire like-minded students—kids who, like me, had thus far felt uninspired—and instill in them a desire to discover what truly moved them, whether art or something else.
Seventeen years later, now a graduate of an MFA program in writing and a recent recipient of a teaching fellowship at Colgate University, I spend the bulk of my academic year in various classrooms around the country—both physical and virtual—and the bulk of my summer months leading writing workshops for high-school students. These are students from Alaska, from Iowa, from all around the country, and they are students I love, students I may well love more than any others simply because their intent is not grade-oriented; they don’t get money for making the Dean’s Honors List. They just want to create, plain and simple.
“If you hit four pages with this exercise,” I joke, “you’ll instantly get extra credit.”
At the end of every experience—undergraduate or high school students alike—I always experience what my colleagues at the Sitka Fine Arts Camp refer to as “a severe case of Camp Withdraw.” I dream about camp. I dream about the students. I dream I am in a classroom and must come up with a lesson plan in thirty seconds or less. But always, I am excited.
“Okay!” I say in these dreams. “I want you to tear out a sheet of paper.”
It’s ludicrous: how much what I do has become my life. A month ago, I had the opportunity to lead a two-week intensive summer camp with the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio of Iowa City, my first time teaching for the program, and I was little short of ecstatic. My reasons were twofold: not only did I get to guide some of the most talented young writers in the country, but I got to do so on my home turf, in Iowa City, a place where I lived and studied and wrote for three incredible, inspiring years.
This is about my experience and yet it isn’t, because what I realized while in Iowa—what I’d begun to suspect during my time at Colgate—is that the best thing I can do is show I care even outside of the classroom. That what I do is not a job; it is a way of life, a passion. And that it doesn’t end simply because I head home, change out of my teaching dress, and pull on sweatpants.
A colleague disagrees with me. Once, late last winter, a former student dropped by my office to tell me she’d been invited on an academic trip to Australia. The plane ride would be long, I knew, because I’d taken that trip myself just three months prior, and because I felt she showed exceptional promise—she was, after all, sitting in my office a full three months after our time had ended—I wanted to give her a book. Not just a book, but one of my favorite books, one that I hoped would inspire her to keep writing on a topic she’d written about for my class. The colleague—a man I greatly admire, someone whose favorable opinion I always coveted—argued it was inappropriate: giving a book to a former student. It established, he explained, an unnecessary out-of-the-classroom relationship, one that didn’t need to—and shouldn’t—exist.
Had this been a current student, I’d likely agree with him—a gift would show favoritism and would be, frankly, weird—but this was a student I’d had in the fall, and now it was spring, and my action—however small—was meant not to gain favorable standing, but to mentor her in some small way. A way that extended beyond the classroom. A way that said, I care, and I think you’re talented, and please keep writing. What’s more, this was a book closely aligned with her own project, and because it was a work of nonfiction, it was also a way of thinking about her life. I thought it’d serve as a useful framework for both her work and her inner-thinking, not to mention make a pleasurable read: seventeen hours, remember, across the churning Pacific.
In the end, and after a lot of thought, I decided to give her the book. I wrote an inscription on the cover page, something about how I hoped it would serve as creative catalyst, how I felt she showed incredible promise, how I hoped her time in southern Australia would prove nothing if not inspiring. She should feel free, I wrote, to stop by anytime, or contact me after my fellowship ended—whether that meant next year or in twenty.
I don’t regret it to this day. It reminded me of Mrs. Hinds. As my fellowship drew to a close and I began sorting my things into boxes, I decided to write my old third grade teacher a letter—a very belated thank you. Her address (according to the Internet) remained the same, but I never got a reply; it’s very likely Mrs. Hinds has since passed away, or maybe she vacations year-round in Florida, but regardless, I needed to say it: thank you, thank you, thank you. I like to think about my gratitude floating around in some rural Post Office, a little perpetual, feel-good karma.
Which brings me back to Iowa: the purpose of all of this. It was a Friday, the end of my first week, and I realized suddenly that my opportunity to teach for the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio was the experience I’d been waiting for all along. For the four years prior, I’d taught in unfamiliar terrain—new cities, new states, new regions of the country, even—but here in Iowa, I was teaching in a place that I knew and loved most, a place I’m profoundly familiar with, and what I wanted more than anything was to show that to my students.
“We’re going to do something different today,” I said, and what I meant was the cemetery. Eerie as it may sound, bringing my students to a place of death, the Oakland Cemetery had served as a place of unyielding pleasure, a place that had, frankly, ushered in profundity. Located innocuously on the edge of town, eight blocks north from where our sterile classroom, the cemetery was my very favorite place to write and read and think for the three long years I was a graduate student. It was a trek, certainly, through blistering hot Midwestern July heat, but I wanted them to experience that cozy quiet, this place I’d found for them, tucked away from permanent residents and the town they’d soon have to leave.
We headed out on around ten, my students chattering anxiously to one another as we passed diners and day-drinker bars, used bookstores and ice-cream stands, but within five blocks, we were ushered back: a tornado, believe it or not, had touched down twenty miles west, though the skies around us still were calm.
There was nothing else I could do—you can’t fight a Midwestern tornado—but the cemetery had been important, and I was disappointed I couldn’t share it. I’d told them, most of all, about the eerie tall, copper statue of an angel located in the center of the cemetery, the “Dark Angel,” whose spooky face epitomizes Iowa City folklore. When hours later, the storm had passed—it had petered out a few miles early—I offered up a deal.
“If anyone still wants to go,” I said, “I’d be happy to take you now, with our free time.”
It was an hour and a half allocated for rest between their seven-hour camp schedule and their hour for dinner in the dining hall, and I expected them to say no, no way, we’re tired, we’re hungry, no, but instead, many of them said yes. I’d talked a lot about the Dark Angel and the quiet valley, and they wanted—now—to see it.
We spent that eight block walk this time talking to one another, about our families and what we cared for, and maybe it was the added effort—they were no longer required to be with me—or maybe it was their exhaustion, but the conversation this time was the best I’d ever had with students. We had no obligation to one another; we were just writers, walking, and when in the cemetery, I finally showed them the Dark Angel, who was standing underneath it but an author who’d written a book on the very subject.
“Do you have any questions?” she asked, and yes, of course we did.
It was like something from a movie: a group of young students and their new teacher suddenly breaking the mold to find, hey, we care about one another, and we care about what we do, and we’re using our free hour to prove it. And in that moment, of course, we were redeemed: a published author emerges, one who was more than happy to talk about her writing, about Iowa City, about its significance, about her career. My students were ecstatic, though it’s possible I’m relaying my own enthusiasm, because in that moment, so was I. On the long walk home, we passed families barbecuing—it was mid-July in Iowa, the sun like yolk across the fields—and when one father asked about our name tags, they said, “We’re young writers in the Studio.”
What I’m getting at, I guess—though indeed, very long-windedly—is that the best teachers and experiences I’ve ever had are the ones that broke the mold. The ones who weren’t afraid to forge a relationship—professional, but yes, personal—in and outside of the classroom. It’s true that trip could’ve gone many ways, but it seems significant that it went so well. That we met an author who answered their questions and they wrote down her name and the book’s curious title (“Here Lies Linc,” by the very accommodating and lovely Delia Ray).
Maybe I’m getting all of this wrong. Maybe my students didn’t care a bit. Maybe I’m only imagining their elation, imagining it so fluidly because it mirrored my own, but it’s my hope that someday, at some point, my students will look back at their sun-lit photos—each snapped several with their glossy iPhones—and think, if for a second, That was nice, what that teacher did.