I sift through memories like a thoughtful archeologist. Exposing one layer at a time. Carefully dusting so as not to contaminate the relics. I want them to be revealed slowly and naturally so I don’t spill my modern day interpretation all over them. I want them to emerge just as they were the day I buried them, fresh, authentic, unsullied by the things that have been piled on top of them year after year.
Covid shutdowns have given me a lot more time to excavate. For over a year now I’ve been moving through a minefield of memories. So many buried treasures. And some trash. One particular artifact remained mostly covered, until this morning.
I was reading an article by Eve Crawford Peyton about Philip Roth’s biographer, Blake Bailey, entitled ‘I Was 12 When We Met’. I had been loosely following the story because I am a fan of Roth’s writing, and I feel an affinity toward him, having grown up in his hometown of Newark, NJ, and having studied him at his Rutgers alma mater.
As I read the article about a predatory teacher who had groomed his students, my 12 year old self flashed before my eyes. But why?
Mr B, an art teacher who was young and cool, who played the guitar, wrote songs and poetry, came to our classroom twice a week. He was the creative person I wanted to grow up to be. He was the teacher I had been waiting for. He encouraged me to write, lauded my poetry, invited me to his office, which was a tiny desk in a basement supply closet. He taught me about stamp collecting, and talked to me about a creative future. He lifted me up with praise and inspired me to write more, and to write better.
One day he wrote me a poem. It filled me with such pride and joy. I read it over and over and committed it to memory like a favorite song. I still remember most of it. It started with the lines: ‘I think the chances very slim/ Or time could ever come/ That I should have a date with Kim/ So I’ll write a poem that’s dumb.’
It went on to talk about how well I wrote poetry. How he envied my natural gift. It was exactly the sort of praise and flattery that any young wanna-be-writer would want to hear. And it ended with the lines ‘that she is one that I hold dear./ Yes, she is one I love.’
I held onto that piece of paper forever. It may still be buried in a box in the garage. It meant a lot to me.
As I sat here this very morning, 41 years later, I was reading Peyton’s article with the front of my brain, and uncovering more of the memory much deeper in my mind.
I remember I was so thrilled about the poem that I was beaming from ear to ear. When my classroom teacher, Mrs F, asked me what I was so happy about, I gladly ran up to her and showed her the poem. She read it and looked at me. Then she looked across the room, pointed her long thin finger and wagged it at him, as she repeated ‘I knew it. I knew it.’
Back in that moment I didn’t know what was behind her words, so I buried them until today. I thought she meant that she knew how much he loved my writing. I had no idea… I was just happy and proud that I was being acknowledged and encouraged by a teacher I admired. Writing was the only thing I wanted to do all day, every day, forever, and having my words read and appreciated was a new and exciting thing.
The next time he was scheduled to teach in our class, he was absent. I began to miss him, and the writing. I went to the basement to find that his stuff had been cleared out of the closet. He was gone. I asked Mrs F what happened to him? She told me he had been moved to another school. Sometimes art and music teachers get moved around the district. It happens all the time…
It wasn’t until this very morning, 41 years later, when I remembered her words and her wagging finger, that I realized why he was moved. Peyton’s article was the trigger and the tool I needed for the job.
Today, I remembered, and I understood for the first time, that Mrs F probably saved me from something that could have been much worse.
The story is mostly uncovered now. There’s more to it than is written here, and there’s still some brushing off to do, when the time and the tools are right. I will continue to uncover it slowly and with care.
And now, my search for Mrs F begins. I hope I can find her and thank her.
The closet/office is the 2nd door on the left. I took this photo 2 years ago when I was teaching there.