I was the kind of kid who inspired a love-hate relationship in teachers, as in, either they loved me or they hated me. I was lucky most of them loved me, and I loved most of them, because we all loved learning, and a shared love of learning tends to make people love each other. I know this is true because my matron of honor brought it up in her toast at my wedding, concluding, "And if you can't find them after the wedding—well, they're probably holed up in a library somewhere."
Only a couple of teachers ever hated me. My third-grade teacher came to resent my interruptions of her Revolutionary War lessons. (I was in a real Johnny Tremain phase at the time, from which I have never fully emerged, and she didn't know what a flintlock was.) And then there was my AP Calculus teacher in eleventh grade. She was my AP Calculus teacher for exactly three days before I decided I could do without both her and AP Calculus. I was right. Pre-cal for the A and the same exact graduation credit. But she's had a lot of influence on who I am as a teacher, a critique partner, a reviewer, whatever. Whenever I'm giving feedback, I'm thinking of her.
Here's what happened. I had a bit of a reputation for being good at English. It was, you might say, My Thing, as I guess it is for many girls who grow up to be writers. This teacher (we'll call her Mrs. X., since it sounds sinister) had it out for me from the moment I walked in her door. I thought I was something since I'd won a few English awards? (I didn't. Thanks, adolescent low self-esteem.) Well, she would show me I wasn't.
As fate would have it, I came down with some sort of awful twenty-four hour January cold-and-flu combo the night before our first homework was due on the second day of class, but I felt well enough to go to school the next day. Well, not really, but I would never miss school if humanly possible. What. If. I. Missed. An. AP. Class. And. The. World. Came. To. An. End? I didn't get my homework done, though. I brought a note from my mom, who everyone knew was a mom you could trust not to help her kids get out of homework without cause. I promised to turn in the homework the next day. Mrs. X. didn't care. She harassed and bullied me throughout that class period.
I was done. With her. With AP Calculus. With math in general.
English was my thing. Not math. Not anymore. Not ever. It took me years to realize this was a turning point, a watershed moment in how I thought of myself as a student: I was bad at math. I hated math. Never before had I defined myself in that way.
Here's the kicker: I'm not bad at math. I don't really hate it. I took the GRE twice in my forays into graduate school. The first time I scored a 730. Five years after that, I scored a 750. Out of 800. I don't remember the exact percentile, but it was in the high 90s. I was stunned. I'm not bad at math, I had to tell myself several times. I'm not. This proves it. In the English departments I've worked in, I've often been called on to interpret statistics, to help others average grades, to fill out whatever administrative paperwork required a lot of numbers. I enjoy that kind of thing. There's a certain satisfaction in finding that one right answer.
Mrs. X. taught me just how much influence one person can have on the way another person sees herself. And I have never wanted to be Mrs. X.
Whenever I walk into a classroom, or interact with a student, or respond to anyone's writing, Mrs. X. comes to mind. I never want to be the person who makes another person quit, who makes another person say, "I hate English. I hate writing. I'm not good at it." Whether I'm working with a student writer or another professional writer, Mrs. X. is my guide.
For better or worse, she made me a better teacher, a better critique partner, and a better person.
I wonder if she'd be pleased.