Write a letter to someone whom you never got a chance to thank for the role they played in your life. What was it about that person that mattered so much?
I once blogged about regret, and if I have a regret, it’s not writing this letter (or something like it) to Mr. Wilson. Mr. Wilson was my high school choir director, and he also taught my Advanced Comp and Lit course my senior year. To say that he changed my life seems like it would be cliche and trite.
But, he changed my life.
And I never said that before he died.
Dear Mr. Wilson,
I’ve always wondered something: how did you decide which books to assign each of us for our book report project in Advanced Comp & Lit? I’ll admit, I was pretty entranced by the little in-class assignment you set us of writing down the titles of all of the literary fiction we’d ever read, mostly because I suspected I’d come out on the other end of that assignment with a pretty self-important list of great books, but really, I’d read basically nothing up to that point that “counted” as anything, at least in terms of this assignment.
A couple of class sessions later, after you’d had time to read over our lists and perhaps perform acts of divination (just kidding) you handed me a slip of paper with the three titles you’d chosen just for me. It felt like I was receiving both the results of a personality assessment and a clue about who I could become.
The Brothers Karamazov
The Sound and the Fury
I took my list to the public library that night to find and–somehow–assess each of the books. Make my decision about which one book I was going to read based on, I don’t know what, cover art and the book jacket summary. I walked out with Sophie’s Choice. I think The Brothers Karamazov struck me as too difficult–my quick scan of the writing on one random page didn’t connect with me (who knew that one day I would read another Dostoevsky book, Memoirs from the House of the Dead, and begin to call it “favorite”–I guess it wasn’t time for Dostoevsky and me yet). The Sound and the Fury–I don’t think the library had it in that night. Thank you, Guttenberg Public Library, or random townsperson, for sparing me from Faulkner (we caught up with each other soon enough in college).
When I started reading, I was surprised. There was a lot of sex. There were drugs. I started worrying about book banners showing up in Guttenberg to wrest the book from me before I could find out what happened. I started worrying that my parents would ask questions I wouldn’t want to answer.
But the CHARACTERS. Stingo. Sophie. Nathan. I fell in love with them. I fell in love with the story. You were re-reading it, too, while I was reading it, and in class, you’d come up to me and marvel at something in the book and I would be breathless and tongue-tied because I was in awe of you and all I could say was, Yes! but I meant it, in my banal way; the book transported me, too.
I cried when it was over. Not just because of how it ended but because I didn’t want to send Stingo, Sophie and Nathan away.
I wrote the requisite book report and waited, clammy-handed, for your grade–even more, for your feedback. You always took care to write substantial comments on anything we submitted, and every assignment I’d ever turned in to you came back with thoughtful–albeit sometimes painful–critique and suggestions. And outright corrections–it was that year I learned that the word “pique” is DEFINITELY NOT spelled “peek.” Error never, ever made again.
I admit when I got my report back I flipped to the end to see the grade before digesting the one and a half pages of written comments. I was stunned to see an A. I read the comments. You thought my summary section was way too long. Yeah, I knew it. You also thought the analysis was some of the best you’d seen done in your class, ever. I gulped when I read that, and sort of trembled, not just because of the grade (I promise, I eventually learned that grades aren’t everything), but because there was hope for me next year, when I went to college. Not that I didn’t believe I was smart. I believed that. But there was something terrifying to me about reaching the point of my life where I was about to say, I’m going to be THAT. I’m going to study THAT–English–because I THINK that is for me. What do 17-year-olds know, really?
For you to say to me, Jackie, you can do this stuff; English and writing are for you–then I wasn’t going out on that limb alone. Maybe it wasn’t even a limb anymore. Maybe it was just the ground, just walking.
I’d trusted you all through high school because of how much you helped me believe in myself through choir. When you said you wanted me to learn a solo for contest, I was skeptical but went along with it. When, the day of contest, I’d finished my solo, you met me in the hallway, grabbed my hand and asked how it went. You said, I signed you up for the 8 a.m. spot because I know how nervous you get. Later we waited as a group in the gym for the scores to be posted on big sheets of paper on the wall. I earned a Division I, the top score possible. You said, I had a feeling you might.
Part of me wants to say you tricked me. But this trick resulted in good, resulted in me finding a new sense of confidence in myself.
It was more like, you saw through me to ME. That’s crazy. How’d you do that?
One final anecdote before I close this–really, it’s getting much too long, like my summary of Sophie’s Choice. Back to Advanced Comp, but before the book report project started. We were reading Shakespeare, studying the sonnets. You wanted us each to write one, in iambic pentameter of course, and we were to bring it to class the next day. The next day came. You had us make a circle of desks. We went around and read our sonnets. We discussed whether or not iambic pentameter had been deployed correctly. I got a knot in my stomach while my classmates read; I was now certain my sonnet was terrible. Others’ sonnets were terrible, but then Kayla–who is still a best friend–read hers, and it was lovely. Perfectly paced. I was to read next, and I refused. I stood my ground in the bizarre way that someone on edge in a slightly crazy-fearful way can–I could NOT read my sonnet; I would sooner DIE. You let me skip my turn.
Later that day I had a voice lesson with you, and you brought up what happened in class. Jackie. It’s okay to be wrong.
I probably said, “I know.” (mumble, mumble; stare at the floor) You didn’t press the issue but what you said stuck. I don’t know that I’d ever been given permission to fail before, especially from a teacher. Not that you somehow expected less of me because you said that, but you, teacher with high standards, didn’t see me as less because I’d screwed up. You gave me permission to mess up. To be human. And to still be worth something–you launched right from your statement about class into a rigorous vocal lesson.
Fail. Move on. Fail. Move on.
School ended and I graduated and left Guttenberg. I left Iowa. I went to college. But your belief in what I could and should be has always gone with me. And I did what I set out to do: I studied English. I went for a vocal scholarship at my chosen college and earned one. Later, I earned a master’s degree in English. I learned to write, pretty well even. I still write. I’m going to write a book this year (am I really??), and it breaks my heart that I can’t send it to you when it’s done so that you can tell me how I’ve really misunderstood some key idea I’ve posited (remember when I wrote about Oedipus’ anti-quest quest? You REALLY hated that.)
We always say we can’t thank a person for what they’ve done–but we can. I am thanking you now, albeit too late. But I hope I also thanked you then, when I trusted you enough to sing something that scared me. When I failed at sonnets but succeeded in literary analysis. When I kept going.
I’m still going. Thank you, Mr. Wilson.