My teacher for eight grades in the one-room school could be harsh–ice pick harsh to a tender poetic soul. Some students let her criticisms sail far above their heads; others let them buffet their egos and then matched the thrown brick, brick for brick. They didn’t learn as well, but their self-esteem was protected by a hardened shell and iron will. They survived.
Me–well, I functioned, but the kind of function that winces at hard words; the kind that functions day by day but realizes I will never be good enough; the kind of function that sucks in a hint of a compliment and lets my guard down just enough for the next shot across the bow.
The teachers’ college would send us student teachers from time to time, and many came with apprehension, given that AL’s reputation was known far and wide. I remember one unlucky lad who riled her to the point that she chased him through the fields with an ax. The ax part may have been embellishment since I did not actually see that part myself. But given that I did see her shove two of my classmates down the stairs, it was not a far stretch for the imagination.
My poetic soul, granted, was perhaps too fragile for the real world, but other than my parents and siblings, who acted as warm and safe refuge, I often felt alone and misunderstood. Then another artistic soul came along to acknowledge my worth.
She came as a student teacher; and in my memory, try as she might, AL could not intimidate this one and squelch her free spirit as she had done with so many others. I don’t even remember how long she stayed at our school, but what I do remember is the care and compassion she showed me in that brief time. I felt understood and valued for my gifts and my awkward young self. I was truly valued by someone other than family, which meant a lot because after all they have to love and accept you. She freely praised and filled up a young girl’s depleted emotional tank.
Even after P left, she would write this insecure country girl, and I would write back. This made me feel important, like I had something to offer the world. It may not have seemed that much to P at the time, but to me it was invaluable encouragement, and I look back on that investment into me and am grateful.
What AL thought was all that mattered; and what she thought came across as narrow, legalistic parameters of black and white. My soul was fluid and full of changing color, so to be channeled into what was the only “right” expression was disheartening and dispiriting. P was not afraid to praise me and give me affirmation for being an individual, an individual with worth. And that was life-giving.