Mrs. Theriault and Miss Lewis. Those were the two teachers who made the most colossal impact on my life.
Miss Lewis taught me fifth grade in Los Angeles, California. There were two Vanessas in the class and three Ryans. I was Vanessa C. I can’t even tell you right now what it was about Jenny Lewis that made her memorable. She read the book “Matlida” to us and I imagined Miss Honey as her. We had a class pet; we were her first real set of students. She was young, probably mid twenties, but to a ten-year-old girl she seemed full of wisdom and experience. She had brown hair and her birthday was in September. I’ve never forgotten her.
Mrs. Theriault taught me that I was a writer. She was my seventh grade language arts teacher in Miami, Florida. I remember her telling my mother that I was a gifted connoisseur of words. I remember her telling me that I was an author. I remember her writing in fine-tipped ball point pens, ink dancing across the page. “Excellent use of imagery, Vanessa,” she would say. My name was magnified in the loops and swirls of her script; legitimised in her endorsement. She made me feel important, gave me extra things to do, and entered me in state writing competitions. She told me every day that I was one of the best writers she had ever seen in her classroom. Mrs. Theriault was older than my mother. I can’t tell you how old since, through my myopic tweenage eyes, I could only measure age in segments comparative to the lifetime of others around me. By that regard, Mrs. Theriault was quite advanced in years; she had been teaching for the majority of it. I am a writer because of her.
In the way of some writers, I studied education so I could have a fall back. English Literature, to be specific. I didn’t become a for-real-for-real writer right away. I became a mother instead, thus I needed to evoke the practical employment of teaching. I told others around me that if I never publish, I will find solace in knowing that I am able to tell young writers that they have a future in letters on the page. Not necessarily in one of the “those who can’t do teach” ways, but rather “those who can give, give to as many as possible”.
I never got to give Miss Lewis and Mrs. Theriault what the Class of 2018 5A Band 1 students gave me. I actually wish I could find those two phenomenal women and tell them that I’m a teacher now. I wish I could tell Miss Lewis that I know all my students’ favourite books and television shows, just like she did. I wish I could tell Mrs. Theriault that I’m a language arts and literature teacher now. That I’m really working hard to finish the novel I promised her I would one day write. That I tell a boy in my class “the world deserves to read your book” just like she always told me. I want to be able to tell those two teachers that I am the Head of the English Department at our high school because I wouldn’t have gotten to this point without them.
I met the students of the ALHCS graduating class of 2018 three years ago. They were the first set of students that I thought about outside of school as a collective. Any educator will tell you about individual students who stand out to them, however rarely do you find an entire class that endears you the way they endeared me. Teaching is a career which utilises a currency of energy and emotion in the way other vocations may offer dollars and cents. For a teacher to feel validated in her emotional investment to her students, returns (however small) must be felt. Sometimes it’s in the subtle smile of a reluctant reader when he is able to pronounce a word correctly; other times it’s found in the shared experiences of learning (spoiler alert: teachers learn, too).
Something about this class made me feel even more driven to show them that learning about literature and writing could be fun. Energy is an important conduit in any interaction, but more so when it comes to the classroom environment. Students are so susceptible to the energy of the teacher that it can often have the most impact on learning. I went out of my way to channel every bit of excitement, even when I was sick, showing up and (hopefully) making the time we had together more than just the typical school period.
The funny thing is that I didn’t think I would become attached to them the way I did. Not until the time rolled around for them to go on study-leave did the steady grip of nostalgia slowly reach out as our three year journey together was indeed at a close. Somewhere during that space of time most of them had grown taller than me (and smarter than me) as they began to become fledgling versions of the people they will one day settle into. That’s my favourite part of teaching high school. Seeing people before the ills of the world waft in and bring the must of disappointment to replace the fresh fragrance of future possibility. I like to think that one day, when I lose my own youthful take on society, I will be able to hold their optimism against me, like a blanket taken off the line after a sunny day.
On the last day of our formal time together, I sat at my desk putting quotes from great works of literature into the “teacher’s comment” section of my graduating class’ final report cards. It was a time-consuming task since I wanted to give each student something I felt jived with their personality or our interactions together. About halfway through, I wondered if they would even appreciate it, or if they were even aware of how much of myself I gave to them. The whole transfer of energy thing. They were aware, apparently, because that afternoon they conned me into going outside, locked me out of the class and then opened the door to reveal that they were indeed capable of completing group work.
Under the leadership of one of the most intriguing and diverse-minded students I’ve had the pleasure of teaching, they had organised a gift basket of stationary and chocolate for me. There were different coloured pens, notebooks with cute designs, and a gold pencil pouch. I had always marked their papers in colours like purple or pink. I had a thing for cute designs. I was always obsessing over pencil cases. Before the hurricane (when we had our own classroom) I had fun knickknacks on my desk. I was overcome, in that moment, with the tangible fact that they had been paying attention. One of them thrust a booklet at me right then, when I was trying to stem tears with no tissue.
“Read this, Teach!”
I thought it was a card. It wasn’t.
They had made a book (with chapters and photos) of our time. I sat down at my desk and read it more carefully than I had ever viewed one of their essays.
Mascara streaked my face as I turned pages of quotes they had written for me, about me. There were sneak photos they had taken in class, pictures of them at Honour Roll night, and an entire poem written using our vocabulary words.
Here I had worried about them; whether they had paid enough attention to the things I had taught them so they could do well in their exit exams. They had. I was the one who had not paid enough attention. I hadn’t noticed how much I had given them that wasn’t in the lesson plan.