Thursday, February 9, 2017

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.

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