How I Ended Up on a Road Trip With My High School English Teacher
I took a road trip with my high school English teacher last weekend. Sixteen-year-old me got a big kick out of it. I was not a good student, but I've always loved to write. If I missed a homework assignment it was likely because I thought writing in my journal was a better use of my time. I stand by that decision.
It takes a village to raise a child. That old cliche is true. Growing up is hard. So is parenting. Now that I am a parent myself, I understand that my parents are human beings like me, and life is complicated.
You never stop needing the village. They are your people. The people who not only show up when your parents can't or won't, but also when you need a mentor and friend. Your village is made of the people who believe in you, the people who hold space for you.
Chuck Keller has been one of my consistent people since I was a teenager. In his classroom, he taught me to be brave and confident among peers. One of his memorable assignments asked the question, "What is our relationship to the environment?" The question was open to our interpretation, and we could present it to the class however we saw fit.
I wrote poems about nature and pasted them in collages on construction paper in a handmade book.
When the day came, I stood at the podium in front of the class and explained what I did. I had intended to pass the book around for my classmates to look at on their own. But I changed my mind. My voice shook a little. I want to say I was nervous, but I think I was excited more than anything. It felt good to face my peers and if Mr. Keller's classroom was anything, it was a safe place.
I said, "How can I complete a project about the environment if I can't even deal with my own?"
Then I read one of my poems aloud to the class.
I used to think that teachers had one singular goal: to teach for the grade. That's the job, right? To teach and test kids with the goal of each kid reaching their fullest academic potential. But Chuck showed me that a teacher is far more than that. We all can name our favorite teachers. The good ones reach beyond the curriculum to show us a microcosm of community inside their classroom.
After I graduated, I kept going back. I'd pop into Chuck's classroom after school unannounced to hand him an essay I was working on. I paced around his classroom while he edited on the spot. Once email became a thing, I showed up in his inbox with more editing requests, each time getting stronger as a writer. A few years later, I shipped him a box of magazines that had published my work.
I showed up to watch his band perform and became friends with his wife. Chuck and I have served on community boards together and we've been there for each other in hard times. He has definitely had his hand in raising me.
My dad, a retired comptroller, doesn't feel threatened by this. No. My dad is actually grateful. As a parent he understands that the more people who love and care for your child the better. My dad and Chuck even worked together to help my husband put a deck on our house.
My road trip with Chuck last week was to the National Society of Newspaper Columnists' annual conference. Chuck took on column-writing in his retirement, so not only is he my former high school English teacher, my mentor and my friend, but he is also my colleague. This past December, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to publish one of his columns in the newspaper for which I am the opinion editor. At the conference, Chuck was there with my family to see me honored with the National Society of Newspaper Columnists' Legacy Award. A proud moment for both of us.
This Father's Day, I want to honor Chuck. I am here because he was there.
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