The first teacher took ill and had to take a sabbatical. I think that maybe we kids gave her a nervous breakdown. Then “Mrs. E” showed up in a big fur coat and bleached blond hair that lit up the classroom. She had style and flair and had seen the world.
She spoke poetry, the words gliding off her tongue with authority and flavored by cultures and a life truly lived. She captivated me, the habitual daydreamer, the proficient procrastinator, expert excuse-maker. She made me want to l-i-s-t-e-n and to bring those dreams to life on paper.
She pulled me aside one day after class. I thought that I was in trouble, because she looked at me like a raptor sizing up its prey. She said, “Dustin, I don’t want you to do your homework. I don’t want you to take the tests. I don’t care if you pay attention in class. Just keep writing and turn it in to me—you are guaranteed to get an A.”
Immediately, I felt like a secret service agent. I told no one of my special status, not even my parents. Can you guess which class was my favorite? And I seriously hated English class. With a single conversation, “Mrs. E” turned drudgery into life and gave me permission to love what I was born to do.
I can still feel my heart thumping in my throat as I pumped the old Huffy pedals as hard as I could to get to her house to share the latest story. That summer break we made a deal: if I shared what I wrote with her, she would share what she wrote with me. I wish I could get this squeaky bike going faster!
She taught me that poetry isn’t just about life. Poetry is life. The way that you shape your life comes from deep within you. Words come from the same place. They come from your soul and you are helpless to change it. You are a fool to try.
I learned that poetry is something to give away. And that life is to give away. Poetry and life are children of the same womb. When you give them freely, as my first mentor does, everyone grows.
To this day I am grateful to the poet who helped shape me. It is rare to hear of a teacher that has the courage to break the rules like that for the growth of her student. I saw her a few years ago at a poetry reading that she organized. She still works hard to inspire writers, to give from her soul. I shared with the group how she changed my life. She denied it. “No, no. I did nothing of the sort,” she drawled.
Then she got that look of a hungry raptor again. I was sure that I was in trouble this time! “No, Dustin.” She said proudly. “You were just an excellent student.”
I’m good for the next 30 years.