A Teacher’s Legacy
Last night, I wrote the most challenging chapter thus far of the new novel. It is also one of my personal favorites because it featured a concerned, interested teacher and showcased the emotional impact such a teacher can have on a hurting and endangered child. It made me think of Stackhouse. For those dedicated, loyal, phenomenal, outstanding readers of this blog, you’ve probably read that name before and maybe snippets of what he did for me, but I have not really dedicated time to writing a thank-you to him publicly. I’ve done so privately for the last ten years–I call him every few months, go to see him at least twice a year. He gets free copies of every book I write, and he will continue to receive them for as long as I write them (read: forever). This post is for him.
Stackhouse was my eleventh grade Honors English teacher. I had to stand in a line at the end of my tenth year to get a ticket to be in his class, because he was so popular amongst the students. At the time, I’d never met him, and didn’t really know why he was so beloved. But my tenth grade English teacher liked him and, in order to get into Dr. Estes’, the most feared English teacher in all of McGavock (which was exactly why I wanted her), AP Senior class one had to have the recommendation of Stackhouse. In other words, the other teachers respected him, so I stood in line very early one morning at the end of my 10th grade year to get a coveted ticket to this man’s class. He walked down the hall, his trademark straw clamped between his teeth, and said: “I’m flattered. Really. But unless you intend to actually participate in daily discussions, don’t waste your time in this line, because you will fail my class. Participation is mandatory. Kapeesh?” I smiled because I knew then that I was going to love his class.
Fall came and I started his English class. He sat funny in a chair, his feet flat in the chair, legs bent, a straw clamped between his teeth. We read “The Scarlet Letter” first and, as promised, every day, he’d come in with a topic and the class would debate opinions the entire hour. Oh my word. I was in heaven. I never put my hand down; talking about books is something I could do all day long. One day, he came over, put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Will you put your hand down: you’re starting to make me feel bad?” The entire first 6 weeks of English was bliss.
Then came the 2nd six weeks. He told us that the entire second 6 weeks would be spent on grammar. We we going to get it over with, he said, so that the second semester could be all literature and writing. Now. I hate grammar. In case you didn’t notice, I am comma happy. I put commas everywhere, just because I like them. Technically, I know the rules… But if the movie directors can take “creative license” with facts, then I don’t see why I should stress myself out in trying to obey every 5,358,213,538,321 grammar rule that exist. Anyway, I didn’t start that block of time out so great. Whenever we had an assignment on which we didn’t do so well, he would call those unlucky, grammar-challenged few of us up to his desk and instruct us to ask questions about the assignment: in other words, we were supposed to tell him why we had not done so brilliantly on the assignment. One day, I was pulled up with three other girls. Each of us said something. I said, “I just can’t do grammar.” At first, Stackhouse ignored me, spoke to each of the other girls and then leaned back in his chair and looked at me. He was not happy when he said, “And you. The only reason you ‘can’t do it’ is because you keep telling yourself you can’t and, quite frankly Tiffini, I’m about tired of it.” Instantly, tears stung the back of my eyes and my whole body flushed red. I bowed my head and tried to right the world.
You see, I was not a normal teenager. Having an adult speak to me in any tone that even remotely resembled anger left me trembling in fear. To be reprimanded by someone I deeply admired and liked pretty much rocked my whole world. It left me devastated for the whole day. I cried all day long. Then, that very same day, after we were sent back to our seats and class began, he started covering direct objects. Trying to recover from his earlier speech, I actually raised my hand and asked a grammar question about it. The man called on me to answer EVERY SINGLE question regarding direct objects for the remainder of the ENTIRE CLASS. Embarrassed and put very much on the spot I was. But. By the end of that horrible day, I’d learned two lessons that changed me. First, I knew what a direct object was quite clearly. And secondly, I knew that Stackhouse believed in me. He thought I was smart enough to get a grip on grammar. I didn’t think I was but I was suddenly bound and determined that I was not going to let him down. If he believed I could do it, then by golly, I was going to do it. Overnight, I started making A’s on everything grammar related. Not just passing but straight A’s. I had no idea how. As he handed me another assignment, which I’d aced, he said, “What happened to you?” I just smiled. At the end of the grading period, he always named out loud everyone who had made an A in the class. As he sat calling out names, he said, “And the A that I’m most proud of, out of all my classes, Tiffini J.” I beamed my way through the rest of the day. Stackhouse was proud. Of me.
Unfortunately, that was the last time I was a part of his class. We moved to Memphis at Christmas, and my whole heart shattered at the loss of my wonderful high school and phenomenal teachers. I missed them all. Missed Mrs. Waller, my psychology teacher who called me special and who first taught me about things like dissociation and Freud. Missed Dr. Watson, who was never my teacher officially but who always treated me like a student. I missed the hallways. I missed everything about it. Especially Stackhouse’s class. It was a really hard blow. You see, I didn’t have a crush on him. Instead, he was the first adult male who treated me gently, and who made me believe I could do anything…even grammar. At home, I was in the middle of the worst nightmare. The worst part of being hurt sexually isn’t the physical act… It’s the emotional and psychological war that steals your self worth and sense of being. I tried to be invisible. But it never worked. No matter how good I was, no matter how quiet I was, I couldn’t do anything right. My mom and sister would praise me, tell me I was pretty and talented—but I didn’t believe them. I thought they were telling me those things because they loved me and didn’t want to hurt my feelings. It is easier to believe someone’s criticism, because it often feels like the truth (whether it is or not). But I believed Stackhouse. I believed Mrs. Waller. High school infused strength in me, made me just a little bit more confidant. I –could– do something good. I wrote great papers, and I had good things to say in a discussion. Being taken unexpectedly from that haven was very, very difficult. When we got to Memphis, I wrote Stackhouse a letter that told him that he was really special to me. He wrote me back a two page letter that said he was glad he was able to show that he “did care about [my] welfare.” I was so hungry for hope, and a reason to believe in me, that I shook and cried reading the letter. Some weeks later, we returned to Nashville to get school records. I wanted to see Stackhouse and Mrs. Waller so I went to find him. He wasn’t in his room, he was in the library. I approached from behind him and tapped him on the shoulder. When he turned around, surprise lit his eyes and a smile slowly worked its way onto his face. As it did, he said, “Wow.” I have never forgotten those few seconds. Without a word, he convinced me that he really was glad to see me. He gave me a hug. I don’t really remember what else he said, only that he was genuinely happy to see me. My father was with me, standing right next to me, and yet I felt safe. I felt cared for.
Stackhouse was my teacher. I still know what a direct object is and, when I care, I can follow all the rules of grammar. I still remember those discussions on the Scarlet Letter about fate versus free will. I still remember that, if I try hard enough, I can do things I don’t at first think I can. The truly remarkable thing is that every single teacher in a classroom has the power to instill this kind of hope and self-worth in her students. Teaching is about more than passing tests. It’s about more than state standards. All of that is important, and I’m not voicing my opinion on any of it. I’m just saying that all teachers plant seeds–good ones or bad ones. I was in the 11th grade when I was a part of Stackhouse’s class. I was a teenager. People can try and tell me anything they want about teenagers–about how hard it is to get them to care, or that all they care about is the opposite sex and independence. But I know that all it’s all lies. Teenagers are just as impressionable and just as innocent and sweet as younger children are. They need space to test their wings but they also still need protection and validation. They need hope. And it doesn’t take a lot to offer it to them. A simple recognition, affirmation and genuine attention to the person behind the grade can do it. I know because I wasn’t the only one affected by such teachers–I graduated with a class of over 1000 kids, many of whom still carry stories of how the teachers we shared influenced their whole lives.
I am burdened still by my past. I try to think of my dad but every time I do, all I see, feel and remember is terror and heart-breaking pain. But I know for certain that God was there, and that He was protecting me. I am not bitter. I am not angry. I am hopeful. I believe in strangers. I’m not completely distrustful of all men. I am not defeated. But the only reason I’m not is because God put a handful of incredibly, unbelievably special people in my life at exactly the times I needed them: my mom, my sister…and a collection of teachers who read my books, warned me that, as long as I was in their class, I would believe in myself and offered me both smiles and hugs full of warmth and meaning. These people, my family and teachers, they taught me about the goodness in humanity, and in myself; for every raw, traumatizing wound, they freely gave inspiration and hope. Without them, I would not be the same person I am now; indeed, I am not sure I’d have had the strength to keep walking til the light at the end of tunnel became visible. I am awed by the teachers I’ve had. I’m awed by the inspiration they instill. It is my honor to maintain contact with them, share lunch, rest awhile beneath their hopeful optimism. “Thank you” is inadequate. We write the stories of our lives but caring family and gifted teachers fill in the chapters and the details of the happily ever after.