This morning I attended the celebration of life service for my friend's husband who died last Sunday. It was a bittersweet time to spend with Joyce and her family, for I've known her since before she married Tom. Before her children were born. Long before life as we know it now would come to pass. For back in 1978, Joyce was my seventh grade language arts teacher, the person who first inspired me to become a writer.
As I sat and listened to her speak about her beloved husband, it was as if I was transported back in time, sitting once more in the front row of her language arts class, captivated by her love of language, her ability to find just the right words to frame the occasion. And when she sat down to play the piano in honor of Tom's memory, my heart overflowed with admiration and love for a woman who has taught me more than I can ever put into words.
How incredible to see one of my own former first graders at the service, for Jon had grown up in the same neighborhood with Joyce and Tom's kids. What a joy to see his smiling face, to hear about his wife and three happy children, to catch up with his lovely mother who still has the same bright and beautiful smile I remember from my Greenwood days. As we all stood at the cemetery after the final prayer, I was humbled by how time and circumstances may separate us for a while, yet life and all its ever-changing cycles can gently bring us together again.
So in honor of my dear friend and incredible teacher...here's a chapter of my memoir that reveals how educators can touch our lives forever.
It's my first day at Byrnedale Junior High School. I won't turn twelve for two weeks, so I'm one of the youngest students in the seventh grade. Oddly, I'm also one of the tallest girls, and people often mistake me for being older than I actually am. Older than my sister, Patricia, a misconception she never fails to correct. She's in eighth grade and deposited me at my locker this morning saying, "You're on your own now, Kate."
I watched her walk away with her friends and mumbled, “Big surprise.” It seems I'm always on my own these days, either by choice or by design.
I carry my books down the orange-carpeted hallway in search of the Language Arts pod. Language is my first class after lunch, so I left the multi-purpose room early. That way I don't have to swim against a sea of kids who all seem to know where they're going. Glancing at my computer typed schedule, I see that I've found my room with time to spare.
The teacher is standing in front of a room full of trapezoid shaped tables, neatly writing on the black chalkboard. No one else is there, so I'm glad I get my first choice of seats. I take the one on the end in the front row near the doorway. Whenever Greta and I go to the movies, I insist on the aisle seat even though she likes to sit in the middle. It's safer knowing I can easily get up and leave if I need to...and I often feel the need to, especially when in a crowded room full of strangers.
The teacher smiles at me. She has short brown hair and friendly eyes. "I'm Miss Kurtz."
I nod and reply, "I'm Katie Ingersoll. Am I too early?"
"No," Miss Kurtz smiles. She asks if I'm Patricia's little sister.
I nod again.
The other kids start filing in and soon the classroom is packed with sweaty, stinky preteens, dressed in Polo shirts and jeans, full of chips and bologna sandwiches, not quite ready to settle down after forty-five minutes of lunchroom freedom.
Miss Kurtz lights up the classroom with her enthusiasm and kindness as she introduces herself, then gives us an overview of what we can expect this year. She tells us we will be reading lots of books and asks what kind of literature we enjoy. She also explains we will learn how to use language to tell stories, give information, and write letters.
I meticulously take notes in my college-ruled spiral and anticipate our first assignment. After all, I'm a good student and reading is my favorite subject. By sixth grade, I'd already been devouring thick novels and writing research papers that usually earned me "A's." Math and Social Studies came pretty easy as well, and although Science was tricky, it wasn't too difficult for me. I'm always proud to show my parents my grade card. I think that if I do well in school, my teachers will like me. That I'll feel accomplished and satisfied. But somehow, no matter how smart my classmates think I am, no matter how many "A's" I earn, there's always something missing and I don't know what it is.
Miss Kurtz points to the chalkboard on which she's written a list of words. "Each week I'm going to have you define and use vocabulary words that will help you to become better writers," she explains. "Dictionaries are in the back of the classroom, so feel free to use them. I'll give you some time now to begin."
I sharpen my pencil and pick up a dictionary on my way back to the table. I write my name at the top of a blank sheet of loose-leaf paper, then meticulously add the date. It's 1978. I think, "In ten years, I'll graduate from college." That seems like a long way off. And I've got a long way to go: pimples, puberty and driver's ed, Prom and graduation from high school. It's overwhelming to think about, so I turn my attention back to the assignment.
The first word is "transition," and I carefully write it in cursive. I have no idea what this means, so I flip through the dictionary until I find the definition: "a state of change, flux, or movement; a turning point or passage." As I copy the definition, I try to think of a way I can use it in a sentence. Chewing my lip, I put pencil to paper and write a simple sentence: "Today I made the transition from sixth grade to seventh grade." I'm not sure if it's long enough or if Miss Kurtz will think I'm using it correctly.
Still, it's enough to remind me that I'm no longer an elementary school baby. I've made the steady transition into the next stage of my learning and although I don't know it at the time, I am being led by one of the most influential teachers I will ever have. Miss Kurtz will show me how to use words as a powerful tool, which can shift the ordinary into extraordinary ways of writing. She will encourage and nurture my love of metaphor, even though I don't yet know what that means.
While in Miss Kurtz' class, I begin keeping a journal in a spiral notebook where I chronicle my bumpy road through junior high, my secret crushes, short poems, and longer stories. Week by week, month by month, Miss Kurtz encourages me to work hard so I can become a better writer. And I discover it's not work at all.
Through every transition in my life from that point on, writing will be a touchstone, a release, a passageway from one state of being to the next, a never-ending, always expressive confirmation of what I'm thinking and how I'm feeling, no matter how much the outer world may misunderstand or ignore me.
There are times when I feel as if I embody two different, yet oddly analogous people: one who loves to be seen and appreciated for the creativity I bring into the world and simultaneously a person who wants nothing more than to shrink into myself and do my creating behind closed doors. Having loved solitary pursuits as a child, I would purposely avoid afternoons at my friends’ houses for hours of silent reading time in my own bedroom. Ramona Quimby and Harriet the Spy were wonderful company; I delighted in the way their authors held my imagination and created a world that seemed very real indeed.
Yet from the time I was seven, I was also encouraged to perform.
Patricia and I joined a children’s choir at our church and we sang special music at the Easter and Christmas Eve services. Our director, Mr. Schneider, promised that if we harmonized correctly, “Stille Nacht” would make our parents cry with pure joy. I relished the thrill of preparation, the weekly rehearsals with our eccentric leader. Mr. Schneider mischievously told us that if we misbehaved, we would have to sit beneath his podium…a punishment far worse than it sounded, because he said that his nose perpetually dripped and anyone who caused mischief would certainly go home with their hair saturated with snot.
Mr. Schneider taught me the excitement of anticipation, the satisfaction of “getting it right” after weeks of preparation. I have a vivid memory of standing in front of the hushed congregation on Christmas Eve in 1973, with the lights dimmed and candles gleaming on the altar. Knees knocking with eagerness, the children’s choir was dressed in itchy polyester robes and shiny black shoes. Mr. Schneider beamed as we did our best. And sure enough, we were rewarded with kisses from our mothers and cookies from the Sunday School committee.
From then on, bitten by the musical bug, I consistently found ways to perform. I played handbells and sang in a variety of choirs. I sang solos in school performances and even participated in ensemble competitions, bringing home ribbons of excellence. In college, I sang in a quartet with my sorority sisters during rush week, and in the decade that followed, eventually found my way back to a variety of church choirs and a swing gospel quartet.
As I look back, it's curious to realize that even as an adult, I enjoyed the rehearsals much more than the performances. I loved the camaraderie of learning a new piece of music and its painstaking journey from initial attempt to final execution. The actual presentation often left me feeling like an organ grinder's monkey, expected to entertain the masses who always wanted more. Finally, in my early thirties, I left public singing altogether, trading the rehearsal time for writing; exchanging the outer recital for the inner composition.
Perhaps it was in Miss Kurtz’ class that I learned the important lesson of appreciating literature and language for more than its entertainment value. When we read Call of the Wild, she enthusiastically described the symbolic representation of Buck and his relationship with John Thorton. She reminded us that we all have a call deep within that is beyond what human eyes can see, and challenged us to be brave enough to recognize and answer it.
It was Miss Kurtz who taught me how to use language to persuade, to explain, to make connections between a story we had read and the events in our own lives. Through her guidance, I was able to understand why I loved the books that lined the shelves in my bedroom. Laura Ingalls represented that part of me who loved the outdoors, who was a bit disobedient at times, but in the end, wanted to do what was right. Of course, Ramona Quimby was my doppelganger in all things naughty. I still laugh every time I read the story of her comical reenactment of “Hansel and Gretel” in which she pushes her doll, Bendix, into her sister’s half-baked birthday cake. When her mother opens the oven door and horrifically discovers her daughter’s transgression, Ramona calmly (and innocently) asks, “Is the witch done yet?” Hilarious!
It was in seventh grade that I began to connect with my inner world, to gently accept the part of me that needed solace and silence to support that which was churning inside my spirit. So I bought a large, spiral notebook with a monkey on the cover, its head surrounded by a daisy chain. I wrote in it nearly every single day: short stories, lists of words that sounded interesting, books I wanted to read, and song lyrics. It was in this delicate act of balancing between active performance and quiet seeking that I finally discovered a path of equilibrium and stability...at least for a little while.
Eventually I accepted the fact that I am indeed an introvert, not shy, but someone who seeks a more quiet way of being. One who is able to publicly share my gifts with the world, but also needs to be alone in order to renew and find my center through peaceful reflection. It would take decades, but in time, I would find the courage to listen to and comprehend what my inner voice had been whispering since I was a young girl...and then be brave enough to share it with the world.
My friend, Brian, has called me a reluctant rock star, particularly where children are concerned. He often reminds me that any skillful performer is able to channel people’s energy and send it back to them at a higher level. For me, it has been an ongoing challenge to accept my love of performing while at the same time recognize my need to be quietly reflective. In honoring my introverted impulse, I can begin again, refreshed and re-energized. I am infinitely thankful to have learned how to make the transition from solitude into society and back again.
As fate would have it, in August of 2012 I was shopping for a new writing desk, when I saw someone I knew in the distance. Walking closer, I realized it was Miss Kurtz, now Mrs. Joyce Yarnell, and was delighted that she recognized and remembered me. We caught up on our lives and spent some time talking about the writing process and the book my agent had been pitching to editors. It seemed only fitting to tell Joyce that her love of words had sparked my desire to become a writer. Enthusiastic about my memoir, she asked if she could help me edit. Of course, I eagerly took her up on the offer.
A few weeks before Thanksgiving we met at a local coffee shop and sat in the corner for hours, talking and editing the foreward and introduction of this book.
"You've got a lot to say," Joyce smiled.
"And I'm only going to tell half of it," I replied, lifting an eyebrow. "The rest of it will be mine...and mine alone."
"Wise woman," Joyce winked.
Throughout the spring and summer of 2013, Joyce sat by my side as we edited every line, every sentence, every paragraph of what would eventually become Open Road. I cannot completely articulate the grace I have felt in having a mirror and a witness to this incredible process. To have someone encourage me to continually strive for the precise word, the best phrase, the most inspirational tone.
To have the person who initially taught me the countless gifts of extraordinary language, gently encourage me as I made the slow and steady transition from novelist to writer.