I can still remember as vividly as if it were yesterday the day my parents dropped me off at college in South Carolina, after a long trip from Pennsylvania. They helped me move into my dorm room, make my bunk bed with the new sheets and comforter we had bought, and helped me hang up my clothes. They offered to walk around campus with me, to help me find everything. But I said no. I wanted to do it myself. In reality, I knew that a gush of tears was about 3 seconds away, and I didn’t want to cry in front of them, or I was afraid I’d be begging them to take me home . . . back to familiar. I hated this scary place with its miles and miles of unknown corridors, strange, sticky hot weather, and accents I could barely understand. I just wanted to go home.
After they left, I fell to my knees on the cold floor of the dorm room and hugged my sides, sobbing. I cried until there were no tears left in my body. I had to restrain myself from dashing down the hall and running after them, begging them to pack everything back up . . . to unmake this strange bed and please take me home where I belonged.
But I didn’t. I dried my tears, quieted my hiccuping sobs, and, grasping my campus map resolutely, went out to figure out where everything was. Within moments, I was hopelessly lost. The throngs of strange people screaming greetings and running across the miles of ground, welcoming each other back, only added to my confusion. I walked for miles, but I couldn’t find one thing that I needed. I was beginning to panic, wondering if I was going to be able to find my way back to the dorm. I finally stopped and asked for help, my cheeks burning with embarrassment. “Hi– could you help me, the pathetic freshman, find where I live? I can’t even find that. Thanks.”
I didn’t eat for the first 3 days of college. First of all, I couldn’t find the dining common, and I wasn’t about to subject myself to the labyrinth of sidewalks and passageways again, after nearly not being able to find my way back home the first time. I barely slept, staring at the strange, concrete block walls and hearing the soft breathing of the 3 strange people I had just met who shared my room. I needed to get books, but I had no money with me, and I had no idea how I was going to do that. My heart thudded in my chest, always in a state of panic. With each day that passed, I longed more and more for home. I used to clutch the picture of my family to my heart each night, squeezing my eyes shut and praying that when I woke up, this would all be a dream, and I would be back home where I belonged.
Finally, on day 3, weak from hunger, I asked one of my roommates to show me where the dining common was. I ate the strange foods as a prisoner eats to keep alive for escape. I barely tasted anything, and I left as soon as I could to go back to my cave, where I was plotting my escape.
Of course, like most things that seem truly horrifying when you first encounter them, college was not as bad as my original impression. I don’t remember when it happened, but somewhere along the line I got my books, started classes, and started to make friends. I started enjoying mealtimes, as they were shared with my new friends from class, work, and the dorms. I got to know my roommates and looked forward to seeing them when I got back. Even the sticky hot weather became something comforting, in its own way.
Freshman year was over in the blink of an eye, or so it seemed. Now I proudly placed the word “Sophomore” on my door tag, glad to remove the hideous “freshman” that had dogged me the entire first year, as if screaming “HEY!!! This person is NEW!!! She knows ABSOLUTELY NOTHING!!!!” I started getting into some of my core classes, rather than the generic, boring, “Every freshman takes these and you will too” classes of the first year.
One class I took was Advanced Composition and Rhetoric. It was basically the “theory of argumentation, and how to more articulately organize and argue your points.” The teacher, sadly, was kind but boring. Maybe it was just the subject matter. Each class felt like I was reading the telephone book in a monotone voice. I used to dread this class unlike any other, willing the moments to pass as I looked longingly out the window at the sunshine, wishing I could escape and go out there, instead of being in this stuffy, quiet classroom listening to the droning of how to form sound, rhetorical arguments for both a thesis and my subsequent restated thesis.
And then, one day, our teacher was out of town. We came into the room, shuffling into our seats, already bored before class had even started, and were amazed to see a beautiful, petite woman stroll in where our teacher normally stood. This lady was effortlessly classy and chic– and her eyes sparkled with enthusiasm. When class began, she immediately started teaching us– effortlessly and perfectly. Students who usually slumped over, trying to fight sleep, sat up at attention, eager to hear more. She had examples and stories and so much to share. I found myself furiously scribbling down as much as I could so that I wouldn’t forget anything. I made sure to write down her name– Dawn Watkins– because I never wanted to forget this spectacular teacher. I made a note to find out if she taught any other classes, because even if she taught underwater basket weaving, I intended to sign up. She had that magical gift that many teachers lack . . . a contagious enthusiasm for her subject, and a zest for explaining it that could make even watching paint dry something interesting.
As soon as class was over, I checked the class listings to see if she taught anything else. Rats. I couldn’t find her name anywhere. She was listed under staff, but why were there no classes listed in her name?
I soon found out that Miss Watkins was an accomplished author– and that writing took up most of her time. She taught 1 class per year– second semester only– and it was terribly difficult to get in. What class was it? I skimmed the list of numbers to find the title. There it was . . . Poetry Writing. A graduate level class. Oh goodness I had NO chance of getting into it. Not only was there an insane list of people wanting to study under this amazing author, but I was only a sophomore– I wouldn’t be allowed in without express teacher permission. Even worse, I loathed poetry and couldn’t imagine myself writing it. So I did what anyone else in my position would do.
I applied for Ms. Watkins’ second semester Poetry Writing graduate course, and submitted my request to the dean for special approval to enter.
I distinctly remember the first day of class. There she was– that special lady who had bewitched us all in Advanced Comp. and Rhetoric. I remember her glancing at the class list and saying, “Emilie? Is Emilie here?” I raised my hand, petrified of being thrown out for being too young. “Emilie it says here you are a sophomore?” I nodded glumly, sure that I was going to be kicked out and sent immediately to Drop/Add. “Hmm.” she said. I would soon learn that Ms. Watkins never wasted words. She was a word master– using always just exactly what was needed, and no more.
She watched me that entire first class. I could feel it. She gave me practice assignments, and I could see her eyes skimming over and evaluating my writing. Years later I asked her what made her decide to let me stay. She said, “From that first day, I could see something in you– something different. I saw creativity in your eyes. And something just told me to let you stay.”
Poetry Writing was an insanely difficult class. Whereas I had always been one to think of a poem as “Roses are red, violets are blue, I’m failing this class, and so are you . . ,” we began to learn the true complexities of poetry– the music behind the words. We learned how to write devilishly difficult forms of verse of which I had never heard, such as the villanelle and the sestina. We learned how to incorporate internal rhyme in thoughtful, natural ways. It was amazing how difficult it was to choose “just” the right word. Miss Watkins told us, “Poetry is about knowing language so well, that you can say something beautiful with half the words. If you make the words you choose twice as good, selecting each one with care, for its beauty, then you will learn to create poetry.”
I wrote countless drafts of each type of verse, balling the papers up, frustrated, as I drew so many lines through the words that I could no longer read the originals. Each time I thought I had something great, I received my verses back with copious notes and suggestions, and disappointingly low grades. Everyone else in the class seemed to be doing just fine– what was wrong with me? I feared that I would never be able to write a poem correctly, and the only thing that kept me trying was the fact that I didn’t want to disappoint Ms. Watkins for allowing me into the class. I stayed up late writing and rewriting my assignments many times. I tried to learn from the notes that she penned on the sides of my homework and do better next time. I tried desperately to improve.
I remember perfectly the day we were assigned the Sestina. The sestina is an incredibly difficult form of verse, one which relies heavily upon internal rhyme and uses the same 6 words, over and over again, in a set pattern, at the ends of each stanza. The closing envoi (3 lined verse) contains all 6 words, also in a set pattern. This means, basically, that you write the end word of every line before you even begin the poem. Then you have to think and chew your pencil and try to make it sound natural, not forced, fitting that end pattern. It is incredibly difficult. French troubadours (kind of like court jesters) used to have to come up with these poems in their heads, on the spot for the king. If they couldn’t do it, they were sometimes executed. I tried to imagine the pressure of execution for not completing my sestina assignment. I knew I was going to fail this lesson, but I sat down, poured myself a glass of water, and started to write.
I tried to choose words that were common enough that I could use and reuse them, without sounding forced. Ms. Watkins always said to choose a subject from the heart, because then the words will already be there– so I chose to write about my home back in Pennsylvania. I sat there for what seemed like just a few moments, writing and thinking and closing my eyes, envisioning the farm where my grandparents lived– swathed in the early mist of morning while the sun came up. I tried to will the memories and visions of that place from my heart and my mind down through my hand, where I was praying that the memories were coming out of my pencil in words that were legible. I stopped trying to force myself to create, and just let myself do it. The words flowed from me like water.
Finally, I was finished. I sat up, rubbed my sore neck, and was astounded to see that 2 hours had passed. I had been so engrossed that I hadn’t even realized the time. I had missed dinner, but I had my sestina. I read it over. I wasn’t sure if it was good or not, but I knew that it had come straight from my heart through my pen, and I liked it. It was the first poem of my creation that I had actually felt proud of– and it was unlike anything I had ever written before. Whether or not its difference from all my past work was a good thing, I wasn’t sure– but I handed it in the next class period, curious to see Ms. Watkins’ notes when it came back.
She passed out the graded assignments the next week, flipping each paper over so that only the owner could see the grade. I took a deep breath, looking at the blank paper. I wondered if an F waited for me on the other side. Perhaps there would be a note that said, “Please see me after class. This needs to be redone.” I gulped and flipped it over.
I could hardly believe my eyes. And to this day, I still have that paper, with Ms. Watkins’ gorgeous, scripted handwriting saying only 3 words: “Lovely, Lovely, Lovely. A”
It was the first A (and possibly the last. I can’t remember. haha) that I ever received in that class. I saw Ms. Watkins after class, and she told me that it was one of the finest sestinas she had ever received from her Poetry Writing class. She told me, “When you write from your heart, that is when you do your best work. And I could tell that this poem came right from your heart.”
When Poetry Writing class was over that year, I dreaded the final lesson. All year long we had kept journals– asking the teacher questions, writing down our ideas for inspiration. And each week we turned in our journals, and she would respond to them, personally. I still have that journal. I found it the other day, and I chuckled as I read through my comments.
“I’m worried that I will never become a poet. I have so much trouble with this class. I’m really trying, but it doesn’t seem to be working. When will I become a poet?”
Her beautiful writing in response: “Writing poetry is not a destination. It is a journey. Through writing we find out more about the world around us, as well as more about ourselves. Learn to love the journey. It is the true destination.”
Finally, at the end of the book, I had written her my last entry: a heartfelt, grateful thank you note for allowing me to stay in the class, and a thankful admission of all that she had taught me– not just about poetry, but about life. I told her that I wanted to become a teacher just like her, one day. I told her that the way she taught– not so much “by the book,” but from the heart, had inspired me all year.
Her response was, “Emilie, I have enjoyed getting to know you all year. I have seen your work grow, but it is more than that. I want you to realize that you have always been a poet– a weaver of words. But even more beautiful than your poetry, which is good and getting better– is the beautiful poem you are, yourself.”
Even though I had already taken the single class that she taught, I kept in touch with Ms. Watkins all the rest of my college years, and beyond. She became a friend to my siblings and myself. She said “I remember what it felt like to come so far away, from Pennsylvania, to the South. I remember it like it was yesterday.” She helped me decorate my first apartment, and graciously agreed to receive letters from my first class of students, when I started teaching. I had given them the assignment of “writing to an author,” but I was flabbergasted when Ms. Watkins took time to write back, personally, to each of my 140 students. She was always just classy like that– going the extra mile, and achieving excellence and beauty wherever she went. I always thought of her as a perfect, china teacup– classy and beautiful, but strong, too. She was confident in herself, and she truly knew how to bring out the best in her students– not by haranguing them, but through gentle example.
Miss Watkins, to this day, remains the greatest teacher I ever had in my life. I thought of her so many times when I started my own teaching career– just as nervous as the day I started college as a freshman. I thought of her when my students were 1 year younger than I was, and I was desperately trying to act like I knew what I was doing. I thought of her when I was trying to teach 40 students to love poetry, and they were all complaining that “if it didn’t rhyme it’s not a poem.” I thought of her soft, erudite wisdom every day in that classroom, struggling to remember her advice and let the words of my heart come out through my mouth and fingers to communicate the beauty of the written word to the students in my charge.
I thought of her when my grandpa died, and the farm that had seemed so magical because he was there, lost its sparkle. I thought of her through 2 desperately ill pregnancies, and the arrival of 1 special needs child. I thought of her each time I whispered, “I have nothing to write. I am empty. I can’t do it.” And I remembered her encouragement. “Write what you know. Write from the heart. The words will always follow.”
I think, perhaps, there is no greater gift in the world than a good teacher. They work punishingly long hours– forget this “weekends and summers off” business. The good ones work constantly to reach their students. They give up lunch breaks and weekends and evenings to help kids who are struggling, or to invent new and creative ways to make the class fun. They spend Sundays sketching out scavenger hunts and writing clues, or inventing Jeopardy! powerpoint shows, so that their students will enjoy tomorrow’s lesson. They get paid a fraction of what they could be paid elsewhere, because they care. They invest not just their time, but their hearts into the classroom and into each student that they teach. The best teachers, really, take the jumbled up, confused messes that come through the door, and with the skilled hands of an artist, shape those words– those lives– into something beautiful.
Each piece of stone is just a beautiful sculpture, waiting to be created. Each child is a poem, just waiting to be written.
Thank you, Ms. Watkins. Thank you for showing me what it meant to truly write– and teach– from the heart. Thank you for showing me that the best leaders are also the hardest workers. Thank you for showing me that our words– like our souls– can truly be as beautiful and joyful as we allow them to be. And most of all, thank you for showing me that this journey we call life is a beautiful, poignantly sweet experience– every single part of it– that is meant to be savored and appreciated.
You did it. And I’m just so proud of you.
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