Wednesday, January 19, 2011

For Mrs. Harvey

When my mom read my recently published collection of columns, I asked her what she thought. She paused. It didn't feel like a good pause.

"There's something missing," she said.

"What?" I asked, my stomach turning.

"Well, I can't believe you haven't mentioned Mrs. Harvey."

Mrs. Harvey.

School wasn't my thing. For many years, particularly in high school, I found it frustrating, confusing, and boring. In math class, I tried so hard to focus, but my mind would wander. I'd understand the first few steps of a problem, but once I reached an obstacle, my comprehension unravelled. I'd stare at the list of questions, knowing that if I couldn't do the first one, I couldn't do the rest. I thought I was stupid.

Passionate about things like history and art, I read avidly at home but scraped by at school. I was in some academic (advanced) and some applied (general) classes. I didn't really consider going to university--it didn't seem like an option.

I entered Grade Twelve, feeling a little nauseated when our guidance counsellors started talking about "the future." I had no idea what I wanted to do.

On my first day of Senior English, I appraised my new teacher. A streak of white blazed through her dark curly hair. She wore Birkenstocks and a funky dress. She laughed easily and revealed a genuine passion for teaching. I listened as she went over the course outline. She expected a lot and I wondered if I shouldn't switch to another class. But something made me want to stay.

The classroom promised adventure. Mrs. Harvey had positioned a dead tree at the front of the room, its branches casting twisted shadows across her lectern. Images of Picasso's "Three Musicians" and characters from Greek Mythology decorated the walls. A mournful painting of Prometheus watching his liver be devoured by an eagle captured my imagination. His agonized face etched the definition of hubris onto my mind. Cassettes of Leonard Cohen and Dylan Thomas lined the shelf beside the tape player. Student artwork and poetry found places alongside "the greats." It seemed like an interesting spot and Mrs. Harvey's eccentric enthusiasm made me wonder if I might learn something.

There are things I don't remember about the day I got my first assignment back in that class. I don't remember where I sat in the room. I don't remember what I was wearing. I don't even remember what the assignment was about or the grade I received. But I do remember that Mrs. Harvey's comment was written in green ballpoint pen. And I know that it changed the course of my life.

The comment said: "I hope you plan to pursue English at the post-secondary level."

Well, then. Maybe I wasn't stupid.

Mrs. Harvey told me I was good at writing and whether or not that was actually true, she ignited a little spark that urged me to make something of myself. Thinking that I had ability made me realize it was worthwhile to work at it.

Work at it, I did. Over the school year, we read challenging texts, wrote poetry, composed essays, and discussed the human condition. She was ruthless about grammar and style. Suddenly, the humble comma exuded power if strategically placed. I felt awake, alive, and challenged.

While I came from a loving and supportive home, it was the encouragement of a teacher that pushed me in the right direction, confirming that it really does take a village to raise a child. It's something that we adults need to remember. Whether we are boss, teacher, coach, or mentor to youth, our words prove powerful.

It's not about indulging kids with false hope and inflated entitlement. It's about seeing something real, recognizing it, and telling them. The feeling of having another adult--other than my parents who loved me unconditionally--recognize my potential not only made me work harder, it made me believe in myself. It made me a better person.

Have I told Mrs. Harvey about the impact she's had on my life? Yes. Several times. But it's been a number of years now. I just might send her a copy of this column.

If anyone finds any grammatical errors, please let me know.


This has not been a great day. At least Mr. Tyler will appear on American Idol tonight. It might make that show tolerable.

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