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To the Teacher who Gave Me Writing

A letter

By Sarahmarie Specht-BirdPublished 2 years ago 7 min read

Dear Ms. Peters (for that is how you are in my brain for all eternity),

I can still remember my first day of sixth grade.

It was hot in that old building, like it always was in August. The wide hallway smelled thick with a century of life, grilled cheese, children's sweat. I walked past the St. Benedict and St. Scholastica statues in the foyer and around the corner to the white-walled sixth grade hallway, turning right into your classroom: huge, with a raised wooden stage spanning the far corner of the room, and massive windows looking out onto the courtyard with its statue of Jesus and his Sacred Heart. The air conditioning units in those windows did an admirable job, but those first few weeks back were always tough.

I was excited on that sweltering day, though, because you had assigned a reading log for the summer, and I had read nearly thirty books. I wanted to brag. It was also the first year where we were allowed to wear skirts; we had graduated from the plaid jumpers of elementary school and moved onto the big girl uniforms. It was going to be a good year.

I couldn't wait to catch up with my friends and compare our summer reading. As we talked, we unpacked our stretchy multicolored spandex textbook covers, our plastic pencil boxes, the notebooks we had giddily acquired in the back-to-school shopping rush. (It was my third-favorite time of year, coming closely behind Christmas and Halloween.)

You introduced yourself, and I loved you immediately. You had a presence about you. You didn't take yourself too seriously or not seriously enough. You laughed and smiled a lot. You made us feel at home.

One of the first writing lessons we did was on the poem "Where I'm From" by George Ella Lyon. We read the original poem and filled out a new version, replacing Lyon's memories with our own. We also read "Valentine for Ernest Mann" by Naomi Shihab Nye. I can still hear the opening line in your voice: "You can't order a poem like you order a taco." You handed me words on a shiny plate.

But the memory that really sticks with me is Thought Pot.

You let us choose a pseudonym that we would use to write anonymous creative pieces every once in a while. You gave us free rein with content and design. We could write whatever we wanted within the blanket of anonymity (at least until the end of the year, when we revealed who we were to our classmates, though many of them had already guessed by then). Then, we all turned in our submissions to the "Thought Pot"—a plastic box with a lid—and randomly picked pieces to read aloud to the class.

I couldn't tell you what I wrote. I remember none of the poems or stories. But I do remember laboring over them, imagining how they would be received by my classmates, wondering how one word would work over another. I remember sitting in the evening on my parents' computer up in our office and feeling the blink-blink-blink of the cursor like the weight of the world. The sense of all the possibilities lay thick under every line. I started to feel the power of the blank page and all the words that could fill it.

And when my piece was picked to be read in class—oh. The flutter, the nervous excitement. I soared when my classmates laughed (I had used humor!), I worried when they didn't react. (What can I do better?) I listened to my peers' work and gained so many ideas: I'd never thought of using that structure. And oh, what a word! And that's an interesting premise, maybe I'll play with that. It was here, sitting in this circle on the stage in the corner of your room, looking through the window to the statue of Jesus in the grassy green courtyard, that I knew that nothing else in my life would fill me like writing would.

You encouraged us and guided us and let us try whatever we wanted. You planted seeds of creativity and communication that have followed me ever since. You gave us suggestions and praised our successes. You were a catalyst for the great goal of my life.

I did not want sixth grade to end. I did not want to be a middle schooler. It seemed so old; I wasn't ready. I wanted to stay in that classroom and write for Thought Pot forever and sit on that wooden stage and look out the window. But that wasn't an option, and I had to move on.

One comfort was that my love of writing followed me. Another comfort was that you held a summer writing workshop the summer between sixth and seventh grade. I took it, of course. One day I spilled orange juice all over my desk. That's a memory that stands out, as well as being giddily happy. Not about the orange juice. About life. About spending a few hours with you and other soon-to-be middle schoolers in a classroom every summer morning for a week.

The writing continued well past that summer. Nearly every year in middle and high school, I entered the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. I won four awards at the national level for my short stories, essays, and poetry. I wrote a story about a girl whose mother and sister turn into statues at the Trevi Fountain in Italy. I wrote a nonfiction thing halfway between an essay and a prose-poem about losing a race for the last place on my varsity cross-country team to my best friend. I wrote a story about a ghost (or angel?) at a nursing home and another story about girl who experiences a vision of Anne Frank. (We all have our Anne Frank phase.) In those days, it felt like I had so many ideas that arose all the time, bubbling uncontrollably to the surface.

You were behind it all. I wrote them all down because of you.

Two years ago, just before the dawn of the pandemic, I taught a creative writing elective class at a Catholic middle school. I had six students in my class, all girls, and when I looked at them on those Friday afternoons, I saw myself in your classroom all those years ago.

We read "Where I'm From" and wrote our own stories into the lines. We read "Valentine for Ernest Mann," and I designed a lesson around it called "poems hide": The students had to search the room and find little slips of paper that I'd hidden in cabinets, under tables, and behind the door. Then they wrote a poem or story based on the word on the paper.

And of course, I did Thought Pot. The girls all chose their pseudonyms, and they could write in whatever font they wanted, about whatever they wanted. I shuffled them up and read them aloud to the class once every few weeks. On one particularly warm Friday afternoon in March, we went outside and sat in the sunlight while I read their pen-named poems. There wasn't a Sacred Heart statue in that particular garden, but it was still a Catholic school, and these were sixth, seventh, and eighth graders with their skirts and glasses and stretchy book covers and ideas. Time collapsed on itself and there I was again in your classroom, buzzing with the life that lay behind every word.

I haven't published a book yet, like I thought I would have done by now. And my blog writing is irregular at best. But I still love nothing like I love writing. Words get me through the hard times and inject even more joy into the good ones. And I am still trying. I will write that book. I will write in my blog every day this year on the Pacific Crest Trail. I will reach those goals. I know I can do it because of you.

Thank you.



Author's Note: This was intended to be submitted to the Hometown Heroes challenge. I missed the deadline, but I decided to finish the letter anyway. It was good to reflect on my roots.

If you'd like to follow along with my Pacific Crest Trail adventure in 2022, you can do so at my website.

Thank you for reading!


About the Creator

Sarahmarie Specht-Bird

A writer, teacher, traveler, and long-distance hiker in pursuit of a life that blends them all. Read trail dispatches and adventure stories at my website.

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