Skip to main content

Making an Impact

Sometimes someone helps to set you on a path. If you're lucky, you might even have a teacher who serves that role. We all need a push now and then, after all. I've been thinking about one such person recently.

I read an article about teachers who changed writers' lives. Immediately, Mrs. Vernon came to mind for me. Back in the early 1990s she was my English teacher. I'm fuzzy on the years but I think I had her for sophomore and senior English. I also took a film class that she taught my senior year.

Mrs. Vernon was not the first great teacher I'd had, but she was definitely one of the first to see things in me that others had not—dueling passions for things like reading, writing, film, and learning. She nurtured and encouraged these passions. I was a shy kid, introverted and often lost in my world. I was also a voracious reader, aspiring writer, and budding film junkie. Mrs. Vernon rather quickly recognized all of those interests and then set about inspiring me to pursue them.

I still remember being extremely excited about whatever book we were reading or whichever film we were watching in her classes. Hers was the first class where I really learned to critically examine works of literature and film, to not just express what I liked or disliked about them, but to explore why I felt this way.

In her classes, we would engage in lengthy, entertaining, rambling, tangential group discussions about a book or a film—she would ask a question and then we would each chime in with our interpretations and criticisms of the work, bouncing ideas and concepts off of each other along the way. She created an encouraging classroom atmosphere for her students.

Early on, Mrs. Vernon told me I was a good writer. She said I could be better, though. She gave me things to work on, in order to hone my skills. She taught me to get out and live life while also seeing as many movies and reading as many books as possible, to collect influences and inspirations wherever I could find them. I've been doing that ever since, and I can trace the reason for it back to her classroom.

Sometimes I feel like my brain is on overdrive, consuming more words and images than should be healthy for anyone. Then I remember the lessons that Mrs. Vernon taught me and realize, no, it's not only healthy but necessary. Some of us are just sponges, constantly searching for the next piece of art to absorb in the hopes that it will blow our minds. That was Mrs. Vernon, in a nutshell. She loved literature and film and the arts and she shared that love with her students. She must have recognized a kindred spirit in me; we're both reading and watching and critiquing because we can't imagine not doing that.

The last time I spoke to Mrs. Vernon was during college when I was home on summer break. At that point I'd set my writing aside to pursue other interests. I remember the look on her face when I told her—she practically grimaced. I never forgot the look of disappointment in her eyes. Still, she encouraged me. She said I'd return to writing at some point, and implored me to make every effort I could to do so. I was maybe nineteen and I'm not sure I was ready yet to make that effort. Years later though, I was.

After reading the article I mentioned earlier, I felt compelled to find Mrs. Vernon, to tell her about the impact she made on my life, to let her know that I continued to write, that I'm writing more now than ever. I tracked her down through an old classmate. She's now retired in Florida. I sent her an email and tried to express just how much she meant to me and her other students. I felt the need to tell her I work in publishing, surrounded by books at all times, and that I write on the side. Mostly I wanted her to know I never forgot her.

Soon after, she replied. Her warmth, intelligence, and humor shone brightly in her words. She was thrilled to hear I was writing and vowed to check out the samples I'd sent her—my long-form critical reevaluation of Abel Ferrara's Ms. 45 and a look at Ursula Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness that compares my experiences reading the novel in college with a recent reread. They seemed appropriate to share, as the works being examined in each were like similar works that Mrs. Vernon championed for their boldness, their thoughtfulness, and their searing explorations of the human condition.

After noting that she looked forward to reading them, she also added, "Don't worry; I've retired my red pen. Love Joyce Vernon." I laughed out loud. I also felt like I'd completed the circle; Mrs. Vernon had changed my life and it was important that I let her know that. Deep down, we all want to know that we've left our mark. She deserved to know just how significant an influence she's had on my life.


Popular posts from this blog

RIP Chris Cornell

He was Louder Than Love.
When we were younger and knew nothing, people like Chris Cornell were our mentors, leading us down some interesting paths. They didn't have answers and they made that clear; they just made incredible, invigorating, heartbreaking, and memorable music that helped us get through most anything. "My Wave" was like a mantra:  Don't come over here
Piss on my gate
Save it just keep it off my wave I used to scour liner notes back then and when I discovered Cornell's music publishing name was "You Make Me Sick I Make Music" I thought, that's perfect. Take your defiance, your anger, your disgust with how cruel the world can be and channel it into something. Music, art, your friends and family, anything productive.

His death is devastating. To me, my friends, the world. Every time someone of his stature dies, people ask "You didn't know him personally, why do you care?" And I feel anger and a fury inside well up because t…

Even walls fall down

Memories rushing in, like waves crashin' on the beach.
I'm a bad boy, 'cause I don't even miss her / I'm a bad boy, for breakin' her heart
Young and selfish, unhappy and escaping to a brighter, better place, self-preservation conquers regret, self-loathing replaced by a tentative confidence. A perfect song, this was on constant rotation during those years, both on MTV and inside my head.
I'll be the boy in the corduroy pants / you'll be the girl at the high school dance
Summer '95, outside, evening air, then-girlfriend, me, and 25,000 other voices, singing every word at the tops of our lungs, as if our very existence depended on it.
Sometimes you're happy / sometimes you cry / half of me is ocean / half of me is sky
'96, then-girlfriend is now ex-girlfriend, but hearing this then-new song helps me remember, and appreciate, a heart so big it could crush this town.
The waiting is the hardest part
Must've included this song on every mixtape I …

It Came From the '90s: The Shock and Awe of Divinyls

This series looks back at the 1990s and its influence on the generation of people who came of age during the decade.

Peeling out of the church parking lot after Sunday night religious ed class, Divinyls' "I Touch Myself" blasting from the car stereo. This makes the passengers giggle like the immature dorks we are, while the friend behind the wheel is grinning out the window at the religious education teachers. The rest of us, shy and non-confrontational, smile sheepishly from the backseat.

The teachers look extremely displeased. I think one shakes her head in disgust. Each generation looks at their successors this way at one point or another, it's unavoidable. The old timers, shocked and appalled, plus a little envious, when confronted with the temerity of youth.

While I'm just an accomplice in the car—I didn't know the driver was going to do that when he turned the ignition key and the song started playing on the radio—each of us has at least a little fun in…

It Came From the '90s: Not For You

This series looks back at the 1990s and its influence on the generation of people who came of age during the decade.

Generation X. Alternative Nation. Slackers. Kids in flannels.

In the early and mid 1990s, teens and young adults of a certain age were given all of those monikers, and several others too. Full disclosure, I was one of those kids. Every generation goes through a period like that—when they're the up-and-comers trying to break free of the previous generation, A period of endless media and societal fascination leading to unfair stereotyping and marginalization.

Pearl Jam's "Not For You," from 1994's seismic blast of an album Vitalogy, seemed to be directly addressing this divide between the members of Gen X and their elders. Vitalogy was the most anticipated album of the year. Kurt Cobain killed himself that spring, leaving Pearl Jam alone at the top of the rock mountain, whether they wanted to be there or not. They were the biggest band in the world d…

Michelle Pfeiffer: Frankie and Johnny

Revisiting—or in a few cases, watching for the first time—and celebrating the work of Michelle Pfeiffer, the best actress of my lifetime.

And then there was the time my two favorites starred in one of the most starkly honest and mature films about grownup relationships this viewer has ever seen. Frankie and Johnny (1991) is a beautifully melancholic tale, laced through with rich and sincere humor aimed at adults—people who've lived long enough to have loved and lost and felt real longing and despair.
Al Pacino is fantastic as Johnny, the new short-order cook at the diner where Michelle Pfeiffer's Frankie works. Johnny is a good man who truly believes that he and Frankie are meant to be together. Johnny is fully alive now to the realization that life is short, so he's resolved to cherish every minute of it moving forward. Frankie is the cynic, the beaten-down diner waitress who masks the pain of previous relationship failures with biting sarcasm and avoidance. She's the…

Michelle Pfeiffer at 60: Still White Gold, Still the Best

Hard to believe it, but Michelle Pfeiffer will turn sixty on April 29th.

Not as hard to believe, I'm an enormous Michelle Pfeiffer fan, or pfan, if you will. I've written extensively about her work, and I will likely continue to do so until someone pries the keyboard out of my cold, dead hands.

Pfeiffer turning sixty feels momentous. Obviously, we could go on for days about how she doesn't look sixty, about how she's managed to retain her stunning, otherworldly, jaw-dropping good looks all these years. Certainly, when I first discovered her in the mid- to late-1980s as an adolescent, it was her captivating eyes and pouty lips that first made me sit up and say, "Whoa!" After all this time, she's still solid White Gold. Always has been, always will be.

Reducing Michelle Pfeiffer to her looks, however, is never a wise decision. She's so much more than just quite possibly the world's most pretty face. She's a true artist, an extremely talented, o…

It Came From the '90s: For D’arcy (Sail on Silver Girl)

This series looks back at the 1990s and its influence on the generation of people who came of age during the decade.

Search any dorm room across campus, circa 1995, and you'd likely find a copy of Simon and Garfunkel's Greatest Hits. Many copies would've been acquired through BMG's or Columbia House's music clubs ("12 Hot Hits for a Cool Penny"). "Cecilia" was always a hallway jam favorite, especially in the girls' dorms, but "Bridge over Troubled Water" was deep, man.

Sail on silver girl Sail on by Your time has come to shine All your dreams are on their way See how they shine Oh, if you need a friend I'm sailing right behind Like a bridge over troubled water I will ease your mind Like a bridge over troubled water
I will ease your mind
That image of "Silver Girl" was particularly evocative to me—of what, I wasn't quite sure, but it was all so lovely and damaged in its own twee way. Who was this Silver Girl? Was I s…

Michelle Pfeiffer: Wolf

Revisiting—or in a few cases, watching for the first time—and celebrating the work of Michelle Pfeiffer, the best actress of my lifetime.

Mike Nichols' Wolf (1994) utilizes classic werewolf tropes to segue into a smart and slyly funny exploration of the crisis of masculinity. Jack Nicholson's character Will, in the midst of a midlife crisis, begins to feel like a much younger man again after he's bitten by a wolf. Plus he meets a much younger woman played by Michelle Pfeiffer, who becomes the symbol of all that's missing from his life, and so of course he must have her. The film flummoxed audiences and critics in '94, yet it holds up magnificently today. It's beautifully filmed, with a memorably vivid Ennio Morricone score, and terrific performances by all involved, especially from Pfeiffer.

Pfeiffer has a lot of fun being the object of Nicholson's affection here. She makes acting choices that help reinforce the film's harsh critique of the male ego. Thr…

Gonna make you, make you, make you notice: The musical constancy of the Pretenders

That's Chrissie Hynde's face staring back at you on this blog's header. I've written about Hynde and the Pretenders here on more than one occasion. So it was only a matter of time before I wrote at greater length about her music and influence. She's provided me with a lifetime of deeply personal music to which I can relate to and also be constantly surprised by. There are several other artists, writers, and musicians whose work I've been equally invested in over the years, but my affection for Hynde and the Pretenders goes back to my formative years and is so intertwined with my life that it's almost impossible to separate the two.

Their debut album, Pretenders, was one of the first rock albums I ever owned and, as I like telling anyone within ear shot, a stone-cold perfect album that I've been comparing other great records to ever since. It's a masterpiece and one of the most impressive debuts in rock history. It contains everything you need to kn…

It Came From the '90s: "I want to write her name in the sky"

This series looks back at the 1990s and its influence on the generation of people who came of age during the decade.

It wasn't just Tom Petty's words and music that imprinted on us, it was also his videos that resonated, their images forever stored inside us, helping guide us through life. They seemed to originate within us, as if Petty was simply reflecting back our own lives and experiences.

We were the MTV generation, and for a stretch during the '80s and '90s, words and pictures melded together in perfect harmony, a perfect pop cultural storm. None more perfect than Petty's videos.

"Free Fallin'", from 1989—when the earliest and bravest explorers of the uncharted '90s first started beaming back messages to the mother planet— is one of Petty's more straightforward video-stories, yet it's still packed tight with an unassuming yet sharply wrought commentary on contemporary Americana—Petty's stock and trade, after all.

Our teenage hero…