Was there a teacher who helped you recover a lost part of yourself?
My parents never thought creative writing was good for anything. Or art. Luckily, I was also really good at readin’, ‘ritin’, and ‘rithmetic, so I could still gain their love and approval! With lots of university degrees and a high-paying job, their “unconditional” love was secure. But I have wanted to write books for as long as I can remember. And I still do. But it is hard to believe that wanting that is okay, let alone do it. I am time-travelling through my past and looking for the little Aerin who once believed in herself and in the worthiness of creative pursuits. I can remember three people that I knew as a high school student who encouraged me creatively.
…my art teacher
One was Ms. Harris. The thing you have to know about me in high school is that I was very busy being the “new me” and hiding my light under a bushel. Being “normal,” and having friends. Ms. Harris was our art teacher. She had spiky red hair, always dressed in head-to-toe black, was pretty and youngish, and bore the unusual moniker of “Ms” owing to her status as divorced. She was an exotic creature in our corner of suburbia. You only had to take art in Grade Nine, but I took it every year. And the adored-from-afar Ms. Harris was quite indifferent to my work as an art student … until the day of the charcoal drawing.
The assignment was cool. On cream-coloured construction paper, we used charcoal to reproduce some blurred areas of light and dark that Ms. Harris had put up on the overhead projector. It was really a black-and-white photograph of a figure sitting in a stairwell that she had purposely left unfocused. Once we had covered the paper with our blurred light and dark areas, she sharpened the focus. Again, we worked to reproduce what we saw on our own sheet. She kept sharpening the photo until we could see it the way it was meant and could add the last finishing touches to our charcoal drawings. I wrote my name on the back and put it on the pile as I left for my next class.
When we returned to the art classroom four days later, our drawings were all pinned to a bulletin board that ran the length of the class between the top of the window and the ceiling. I spotted my own drawing easily because of the thick black space I had created down one side to make the paper’s proportions match the photo. Everybody was checking out the work, and after Ms. Harris called us to order, she started talking about the drawings and pointing out what had worked and explaining why. She kept using my drawing as an example of the accurate depiction of light and dark and how depth is created by seeing light and shadow. I was so gratified! But then, oh my god, she congratulated and complimented someone else by name for my drawing! I put my hand up.
“Ms. Harris, that’s my drawing.”
“Oh, no — I was talking about her drawing — the one with the thick black space down the side.”
“Yes, that’s mine.”
Ms. Harris looked at the other student for confirmation. And back to me. And all she said was my name, “Aerin.” But it was the look of happiness on her face and the reverent sound of her voice, and she looked back and forth between my drawing up by the ceiling and me sitting below it and I felt like someone was finally seeing me and liking what they saw. I could have cried. Or hugged her. But I just soaked up this new and different feeling.
…my English teacher
Another teacher who supported me creatively was Miss Roseburgh. She was the complete opposite of the cool Ms. Harris, but I loved her even more. She was round and rosy-cheeked, dressed mostly in voluminous floral prints, had thinning, dyed hair and was still single and closing in on her retirement. She really liked me. I can’t remember another teacher liking me the way she did — and don’t think there was any ulterior motive, because in our graduating year, she and Mr. Heathcock, the equally round and rosy-cheeked music teacher, finally stopped having a “secret” affair and got married.
She always called on me to read aloud from our assigned novels and Shakespeare plays. I loved it. And she gave us creative writing homework, which I hadn’t done in a long time. I relished it. I wrote a long story about an anorexic girl who was obsessed with running. The character was inspired by my friend Christina who went to a different high school. She and I were out of touch, but we had been close back in middle school.
After I got my story back, I was dismayed to see a message written on the last page from Miss Roseburgh: “Please see me after school today.”
Miss Roseburgh was worried that my story was autobiographical. (I guess I was really skinny back then. My mother certainly tried to get me to eat a lot of her disagreeable cooking.) But when I explained that the story was not about me but based rather on my old friend Christina who went to a different high school, Miss Roseburgh didn’t seem to believe me.
I was in shock. Elated. I mean, Miss Roseburgh felt that I had imagined this character so vividly and described her so grippingly that I must be her. I reached my goal of bringing a story to life. But at the same time, I worried that should I have chosen something safer — that wouldn’t make me personally vulnerable if people chose to believe I was drawing from my life experience? Despite the compliments on my fiction, I might have shied away from writing as a result of Miss Roseburgh’s suspicions about my possible eating disorder. But I went on to write many stories for Miss Roseburgh. I felt safe sharing my writing with this caring teacher.
… my guidance counsellor
Mrs. Flannery was like the mother I wished I had. What Mrs. Flannery did for me was to let me cry in her office every morning when I should have been in homeroom and tell me repeatedly that there was nothing wrong with me. A lot of teens clash with their parents. This was beyond that. I don’t think my parents ever knew how to be truly supportive anyway, wrapped in their own fears and lack of fulfillment as they were (are). But then my dad lost his job, my mother hit menopause, I became a teenager. And it was awful. Non-support became direct attacks. I can remember so many hurtful things that were said to me. Hence the crying in Mrs. Flannery’s office. I would get so upset thinking about what my mother had told me that morning or the evening before I couldn’t stop myself from crying. I would have to leave class and I could either sneak out of the building or go sit in the guidance office legitimately.
Mrs. Flannery was like a light, warm, down-filled duvet that you wrap yourself in when you are chilled to the core, shivering with violent cold. Soon you are cozy again and your teeth stop threatening to chatter out of your head. I needed that. I needed to hear that sometimes young people don’t fit with their family and that doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with you. I needed to hold on to the idea that the person I knew I was inside was a good person who deserved to be happy.
She told me something a bit questionable maybe for someone in her position but that was really smart and brave of her to say to me. Because she was right. She told me to go to university as far away from my parents as I could possibly go. I never would have become the person I am proud to be today if I had not followed her advice.
Thank you, Ms. Harris, for seeing me and making me feel good about something I created.
Thank you, Miss Roseburgh, for liking me and giving me the chance to write whatever I wanted.
Thank you Mrs. Flannery, for understanding me and giving me a safe place to understand myself.