My teacher for grades one through eight brought a “shotgun” to school every day. It contained a mysterious white powder and rested on her big, wooden desk at the ready. She appeared as a terrifying specter in my young life: demanding, critical, and sometimes physically abusive. In that one-room schoolhouse in the idyllic Canadian countryside, she towered. She was tough and unquestionably in control.
Whether it was sweeping the hardwood floors, printing, coloring in the lines, cleaning the fish tank, singing in the choir, nothing was ever good enough. She required perfection. I was not, however, a perfectionist and so I lived in terror of her criticism. I was one to find art in the process more than the outcome, and so my insecurities under her tutelage grew. I always felt inferior.
My supportive parents did much to soften the psychological blows on my sensitive nature, but one day some of that insecurity melted at school when Mrs. _______ announced to the whole class that I had written a wonderful spring poem. She had contacted the newspaper, and they were going to publish it; which in fact, they did. I can’t say all was completely rosy after that, but I realized that my gift with words was valuable, something worthy of even the tyrant’s praise. It was a turning point in my young life.
There were other defining moments. When I got to high school, I was intimidated by the much larger school. Walking the lunchtime gauntlet, being sized up by peers, was terrifying. My old insecurities and natural shyness kept me from really stepping out much and expressing myself creatively. I had a small group I was comfortable with, but taking risks was scary business. Then, I learned to play guitar. Suddenly, my songwriting was off and running, and you can sound really good with only a few chords. Best of all, I had something to do with my hands, and I had this big chunk of wood sitting on my lap to hide behind. And piano, even bigger! I re-created myself in the image of Lilly the Folksinger / Rock ‘n Roller. I was able to express myself, my fears, my faith, my humor, in ways that I was too inhibited to do before. The more praise I received, the more my confidence grew. The more my confidence grew, the more opportunities opened up for me. Being able to share what I had written, that part of my vulnerable self, gave me a sense of power, a sense of significance. And when others were moved, encouraged, or just simply grooved to my tunes, my old fears of inadequacy and inferiority started taking a back seat.
It makes me realize how important affirmation is. It’s easy to be critical, and I have to watch that in myself because I have a tendency to see flaws first. I look for things to fix. But my desire to “help” must be tempered with the awareness that, just like me, a fragile self is only waiting for the right encouragement to blossom.
By the way, Mrs. _______ really did love me and only wanted what was best for me as her student. I saw that later . . . much later! She had some pretty weird ways of showing it, but she was proud of me and was spurring me on to do well. And the shotgun? I realize now that what she called her “shotgun” was really an inhaler. She was asthmatic. So the big, bad tyrant had weaknesses after all.