She treats me like a celebrity, this woman. No...scratch that. She makes me feel like a celebrity.
Every year, for the past nine or ten years, she has invited me into her classroom to talk to her juniors, her AP English Language students, about writing. If for some reason our schedules don't mesh, she has me double up the next year and talk to them as seniors.
She ignores the fact that I don't have a college degree. She ignores the fact that, apart from some newspaper articles, I've only had a handful of things published, as in, got paid for them. She ignores the fact that she herself has guided dozens of students to win writing contests and scholarships, acceptance to big name colleges, trips to Washington D.C. Her students consistently ace the AP exams.
She ignores all of that. When I walk into her classroom, you'd think I was the one who taught her everything she knows.
"Class, this is our guest author, my dear friend, Mrs. Shallue."
I look around the room, filled with kids I know from scouts, from subbing, from church. My kids' friends...my friends' kids...and in some years, even my own kids. I know to them I'm just Mrs. Shallue. Barbara. Mom.
"She's an Author," Mrs. D. repeats.
I fight the blush creeping into my face, try to look like an Author. What does an Author look like?
This year felt different. The school itself felt different. My kids are gone, moved on; my volunteer and subbing days are fading from memory. There were still a few familiar faces, but mostly just strangers.
But it's the same routine. After my introduction, I sit on a stool at the front of the class, give a little background on my first essay, A View from a Catwalk, put on my glasses and read it aloud. They follow along - Mrs. D. has printed out copies for each of them.
I emphasize that I wrote it with the help of others in a writing class; I spent hours on this one essay, and then became gripped with a fear of failure after it was published. What if I never wrote anything good again? What if everyone decided the first one was just a fluke? I had to learn to step off that ledge of success and at least try, even if it meant failure. I knew I'd regret it forever if I didn't. It doesn't matter if there are tons of better writers (or whatever you love to do) out there, because what it boils down to is doing the thing you love and just trying to be the best you can be at it, not worrying about being the "best", whatever that means.
I explain that success is mostly effort, not talent, and it's not just okay, it's important to get help from others, to continue trying to learn more. I slip in a little encouragement about staying in college, about not becoming a drop-out still chasing a degree in their 50's like me.
I give them little tips that they probably already know from Mrs. D.'s lessons: read what you've written out loud to catch errors; substitute passive verbs with active verbs; avoid adverbs - you can usually just find a better verb; keep your audience in mind, but write for yourself; revise, revise, revise; and the King of them all ... Show, Don't Tell.
I tell them that learning to write is important even if you don't want to be a "writer" - it's good therapy, for one thing. And besides the need for good college application essays, one day they might need to write a love letter or a letter to the editor of the newspaper to complain about something or a letter to their child's teacher ... learning to express yourself with the written word is an important life skill no matter what you want to do when you grow up.
If there's time, I read my other essays. One year, a girl got up in the middle of A Time for Moving On and left the room. When class was over, Mrs. D. explained that the girl's mother had died of cancer. Well, that essay is in large part about my grandmother dying of leukemia! I could feel my heart jump straight up into my throat. That poor girl, having to sit and listen to me read words that must have felt like razors tearing away scar tissue from a wound that hadn't completely healed.
But when I was subbing for Mrs. D. a few weeks later, this girl pulled me aside and thanked me. She said she had taken my advice about writing for therapy and started writing about her mother, about her mother's death, and how she felt about it. It had been very healing, plus she had come up with a wonderful essay she could use on one of the scholarship essay contests Mrs. D. had told them about.
Mrs. D. likes for me to read In the Aftermath of a Car Crash, hoping it drives home to these kids that she cares so much about the importance of safe driving, especially on the dangerous, serpentine, hilly roads surrounding us.
Most of her students are better writers than I am. I know because I've read some of their stuff. In fact, I interviewed one of the girls in this year's class for a newspaper article a few years ago - she had an essay published in Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul ... when she was in middle school! I mention it and she groans ... but there's a pleased smile trying to hide on her face. Nothing can ever take away that feeling of seeing your words in print.
But I let them know that no matter how good you are at something, no matter how much talent you are born with, you need to keep working at it, learning, practicing. And if you don't have that natural talent to begin with, but you have the drive and determination to get better, you will, and chances are you'll pass up the others.
They were a sweet bunch of kids - they asked good questions, showed interest, showered me with complements and applause. When I left, I was fired up, ready to sit down and take my own advice.
I felt like an author.
(I think that's a sure sign of a great teacher. Thanks, Mrs. D.)