Saturday, June 14, 2014

How my high school English teacher and I turned forty.

I owe a great deal to a handful of high school teachers who opened worlds for me. Mrs. Schmetz taught me the immensely satisfying pleasure of writing geometry proofs, of making an argument airtight, and fitting a theorem into an axiomatic structure founded on a spare set of postulates. Mr. Newport inspired me with a passion for choral music and gave me skills that I've used for more than twenty years. Ms. Bradley gave me the chance to be on stage, something that I had always dreamed of doing. Ms. Paslawsky introduced me to Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson, Emily Bronte, and Mary Shelley. I loved her class, and I remember every novel we read together.

In twelfth grade, Ms. Snyder was my AP English teacher.

One of the earliest memories I have of Ms. Snyder happened on the day she turned forty. Mr. Newport led the Chamber Singers up the stairs, down the hall, and into her classroom to sing "Happy Birthday." He announced her age in a stage whisper and then kissed her on the cheek. I don't know what Ms. Snyder thought of so brash a performance, but she received us with her characteristic grace. People whispered that she had recently gotten engaged, and we ogled the ring on her hand. I was still a junior, but I knew who she was — everybody did — and I knew that she would be my teacher the next year. I had spoken with Ms. Snyder several times, and I was looking forward to taking her class, but I did not know then how far-reaching her influence on my life would be.

Ms. Snyder wasn't flashy: there were no Smart Boards back then, and she didn't prepare multimedia presentations. She wasn't particularly dramatic: there was enough drama unfolding in the literature that we were reading. She mostly stood at the front of the classroom and made us think. We learned how to be better writers and better readers, how to look for layers of meaning in a literary passage, and how to make thoughtful comments in a discussion. As we dove into the Western canon, I had the sense that we had tapped into a deep reservoir of human experience, full of tragedy, love, horror, and beauty.

We knew that Ms. Snyder cared about us. She came to our plays and concerts and to the high school prom. She congratulated us on our extracurricular accomplishments and empathized with us when we struggled. She listened carefully to our contributions to class discussions and treated us with genuine respect and affection. She reminded us of the polite, intelligent, decent people she knew we could be. On the last day of class, before we graduated and went our separate ways, she presented us with a poem that she had written, one verse for each student in the class.

Seven years later, just before I started teaching high school, I found Ms. Snyder's phone number. I took a deep breath and called her, hoping that she would remember me. (She did.) I wanted to ask her how she had been such a good teacher, and how I could be a good teacher. I had dozens of questions, and she had answers. By this time, she was no longer teaching high school, but pursuing an advanced degree and working with prospective teachers. She urged me to call her any time; she wanted me to have a successful first year. After I gave my first geometry test, I called her in tears because I was so disappointed with my students' grades. She spoke to me emphatically: "Genevieve, in the eternal scheme of things, this test doesn't matter. What matters is that they become good people!" She encouraged me throughout that year.

I continued to teach and learned to love it. Ms. Snyder and I spoke from time to time, sometimes letting years go by between conversations. We occasionally sent each other Christmas cards. I talked to her once or twice about my graduate work and possible ideas for my thesis. She congratulated me on my second son and my new house.

Years passed and, incredibly, I found myself approaching my fortieth birthday. How was this possible? I could not conceive of myself as a forty-year-old, and I certainly did not feel ready to be middle-aged. I wasn't mature or accomplished enough; I didn't have the appropriate gravitas or wisdom. I was scared. Usually, I talk through my difficulties with people close to me, but I found it hard to talk about this.

Though we had not spoken in several years, I thought of Ms. Snyder and the day that we had sung to her on her birthday. I wondered how she had made peace with turning forty. I fervently wished that somehow it would not be weird to call her up, as I had the summer before I started teaching, and ask her to mentor me again. I wanted her to answer all of my questions and show me how to be forty years old, as she had shown me how to begin my teaching career.

Of course, I was too shy to make such a dramatic and potentially embarrassing phone call. But I thought of all that she had taught me.

I thought of the poems that I knew. "My heart leaps up when I behold  a rainbow in the sky . . . " And "Margaret, are you grieving over Goldengrove unleaving?" And "Nature's first green is gold, her hardest hue to hold . . . " Poems that captured loss and aging and being human. Poems that I loved, in part because she had taught me to love poetry.

I thought of her continuing education, how she went back to school and got her doctorate well into middle age. She knew that her work was important and never stopped expanding her skills and her mind.

I thought of her willingness to reach down and mentor and lift people higher. I thought of her love for her students. I thought of her confidence and grace as she taught a bunch of teenagers the power of words on a page.

And I realized that she already had shown me how to be a forty-year-old. Read, study, teach, share, love. She had modeled it for me in hundreds of tiny ways.


  1. Happy Birthday to you ... 40 is not so bad. It's very good .... you just can do things the way you want at this point and that is good.

    1. Thank you, Joyce! Yes, as I grow older, I feel less and less obligated to meet the expectations of others and more inclined to try to do what I feel is right on my own terms.

  2. This is so beautiful. It brought tears to my eyes. You and Ms. Snyder are both wonderful examples to me.