I’ve been thinking lately of Eleanor. Even before I was assigned to her I knew her by reputation – reputation and rumor. In those days there were rumors about everyone; unvetted tales of sodomy and lurid perversion saturated the halls of my high school at a rate that can only be achieved by pubescent mythmakers. I should note that most of these tales, with the benefit of hindsight, strike me as logistically or physiologically improbable. Senior year, however, they amounted to the stark and disturbing reality of the secret adult world.
Concerning Eleanor, the rumor mill was tame: supposed sanctions for in-class tarot card reading; unpredictable moodiness, the PTSD from a messy divorce. To the extent of my personal knowledge, these whispers were no more true than were those concerning Earl Johnson, who disappeared from school when his foot was cut off by a train – Earl Johnson whom I later saw as an adult, able-bodied and physically intact.
The last English instructor of my high school career, I developed a crush on Eleanor. She was a Barbara Streisand type but with glasses and interesting opinions on 20th century authors. She spoke loudly and quickly in a voice accented by an ironic self-awareness. This latter trait, I found, was common in veteran public educators, those for whom the bloom of their professional reality had long ago been forcibly plucked from the rose… and then trampled-on by years of careless adolescent shoes.
I don’t recall feeling particularly affected by literature when I entered Eleanor’s classroom. I didn’t approach her required reading materials with relish, as I would later do in college. In the twelfth grade, I considered myself a simple commodity: A strong visual artist, sometimes funny, formerly overweight, who (blessedly) was no longer picked on by my male peers. I didn’t regard myself as a reader, though I was, and I didn’t recognize a personal connection to creative writing, despite an almost compulsive need to fill notebooks and the margins of worksheets with Dr. Seuss-like verse, interpretations of my surroundings.
It was this style of verse that I used when I wrote my first assignment for Eleanor, a piece of free verse creative writing. And it was her response to that assignment that secured her place in the desperately small stable of truly influential figures in my life. When she passed the paper back to me, it contained a single sentence, scrawled in dramatic, florid cursive: “We will get you published this year!!!”
Even at seventeen this seemed like a hyperbolic statement, but that was beside the point. In this instance, and in many instances that followed, Eleanor helped be to see value in something that I did so mechanically, that I almost didn’t recognize that I was doing it at all. It was an innate character trait, like the gate of my walk or the tics that I develop when I’m nervous. In her eyes, though, it was magic.
Lately I’ve been thinking of Eleanor because I’ve spent the last few weeks preparing my first collection of children’s poetry, which will be published later this year by Second Wind. I lost contact with her long ago, and she’s never read any of the work I’ve been preparing, but still she’s responsible. And while it’s unlikely that anyone who reads this post will have ever had the good fortune to meet her, I still wanted you to know that.
In closing, I’ll tell this story: Shortly after graduation I received a call from a girl I knew. When I answered, she began with the words, “Nice poem.” When I inquired, I learned that this girl’s father subscribed to a regional lifestyle magazine, and in the July issue there was a poem I had written for Senior English. Without telling me, Eleanor had submitted it, and she had gotten me published just like she said she would.
I’ve never had a chance to thank her.