Good teachers teach. Great teachers transform.
~Queen Rania of Jordan
Teachers are the launching pad for every other career in the world. I don’t think I realized until recently how extraordinary that is. Every person goes through the third grade, and Civics, and Algebra I. I may never hire a lawyer (joke’s on you, I have a lawyer RIGHT NOW in place to rescue an unnamed person from having points on their license). I may never cross paths with an actuary or use a massage therapist. But I’ve had teachers. Lots of them.
I was raised in the public schools in Tallahassee, Florida. If you add up the 13 years of primary/secondary/high and then 4 years of college, I found myself in the classrooms of roughly 60+ teachers. Of those 60+ teachers, I can remember the teachings, the voices, the mannerisms, and the quirks of maybe 20. Of those 20, I would say 10 were great. And of those 10, a very small handful changed my life.
It’s not a small thing to change a life.
Susan Upchurch was my 3rd grade teacher at Kate Sullivan Elementary. I loved her. She was young, blonde, single, and excited about her job. I sat at a black-topped, 2-person table with Gabe Whatshisname. Gabe was my friend. He was everybody’s friend. He was the kind of kid that showed up on picture day wearing his cub scout uniform. The most notable thing about my uniform wearing, friendly tablemate was that he was a talker. I was a friendly kid, too, and it would be rude not to speak when spoken to. So when Gabe spoke to me, I spoke back. That’s what you do. Gabe did what Gabe had to do. I did what I had to do. And Ms. Upchurch did what she had to do. Which was to give Gabe and me each an “N” in citizenship on our report cards for the first 9 weeks. An N in citizenship? I was a model citizen. A friendly citizen, even. A slightly social citizen.
N is the 14th letter of the alphabet, the third in the LMNO series, and necessary for spelling all kinds of really neat words like Nefarious and Nincompoop and Nap. But an N was not to be seen in any column of any report card of any person that lived in my house. For any reason. Ever.
My mother was livid. And when my mother got livid, she could be quite scary. I think Ms. Upchurch got an earful of why I didn’t deserve that N, why it was all Gabe’s fault, and where I would and would not be sitting in that classroom from then on.
I moved seats the very next day. I don’t remember who my new seatmate was. I do remember missing Gabe (what WAS his last name?) and his gregarious spirit. I also remember that I didn’t talk so much after that.
None of that impacted me in 3rd grade all that much. I continued to love the classroom, the kids, and the teacher.
But one day, I remember loving the work. That day is a full color, 8×10 glossy memory for me.
That day, from the front of that small, square room with the brown indoor/outdoor carpet, Ms. Upchurch opened a brand new door and stepped aside so we could catch a glimpse of a universe that was completely unfamiliar and 100% glorious to me. She taught us creative writing. I’d always been a reader, but had never given a thought to the authors that labored over the books I got lost in. But that day, following her lesson on creative writing, she gave an assignment. Write a story. Illustrate it if you want to, but not if you don’t.
Write a story. Wield words. Create. Mmm. Yes, please.
I did write a story. I think it was pretty dumb. So dumb my mother, who saved everything, who saved even my 3rd grade class picture, did not save it. But the story itself was not important. That lesson changed me. She changed me.
I walked up the street from the bus stop that afternoon, thinking about my story with every step. I thought about settings and characters and really dumb plot developments. When I walked through the back door of my house, my mom was in the kitchen. I hopped up onto the counter next to the kitchen sink while she poured me some Koolaid and asked me about my day.
“I know what I want to be when I grow up now,” I said. My mother looked over in surprise.
“Oh, yeah? What’s that?” she asked.
“I want to be a writer,” I said.
“Huh,” she said. “Alright then. You can.”
I don’t know what I expected her to say. I don’t know that anyone believed me entirely. And I’m sure everyone expected me to change my mind a few hundred times. But I didn’t. Not once. I never wavered. I took every lit class I could get my hands on. I got a degree in English with emphasis on Creative Writing. And I tried to find jobs that involved writing, even if it wasn’t writing fiction. Words were, and still are, my jam.
Ms. Upchurch unwittingly set me on a path I’m still tripping along today. If it hadn’t been her, would it have been someone else? Mr. Beurkley in 4th grade or Mrs. Turner in 5th? I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe not. All I know is, it was her. She set me there. She opened the gate. She lit the match.
I wish I had told her while I had the chance. She died of cancer many, many years ago, still a relatively young woman. I hope someone along the way told her that she was a game changer. A life transformer. A light.
I hope all teachers know this. I hope my kids’ teachers know this. And if I don’t tell them–if I get too busy, or preoccupied, or forgetful, or lazy, or timid–I hope they’ll somehow know. They need to know.
Ms. Upchurch is long gone from my life, but her light did not snuff out. Because she passed the flame to a weird little kid with hair like chewed up steel wool. That kid peeked into a universe she presented and tiptoed through the door with streaks of light trailing behind her.
Thank you, Susan Upchurch Wager, and all great teachers, everywhere.