Estimated reading time: 5 minutes, 13 seconds
Maxine gave birth to me at the age of 24 years old in Tampa Bay General Hospital before they rebuilt the new hospital center in its place. She was on vacation and perceived this whole ordeal as an inconvenience. I was an unplanned pregnancy, I came prematurely while my hardworking mother was on vacation and I didn’t come out easily. Several hours of labor, a Cesarean section and many complications, this Chinese-American immigrant from the United Kingdom took it all as a blessing, eventually. In turn, I took everything that life has given me as a blessing, eventually, including my ability to learn and read and grow. I was younger than my peers when I started kindergarten, and first started to read before most children went into prekindergarten, which made sitting in my New York City elementary school boring at times. Boring but for the coolness of the desktops whenever you arrived in the mornings; I loved to press my hands on the tabletops and desktops to feel that pressed wood’s laminate afford me a chilling effect. I studiously did my assignments and took to reading everything and anything that came across my path.
It was in penmanship class that I learned that I had the ability to make my writing art. It wasn’t just the aesthetics, but it certainly had it’s appeal. I wrote and wrote and wrote until my p’s were perfect and my capital t’s hit all the correct points on the triple-lined newsprint-thick paper pad, slightly thinner in width and longer to appear more mature than my first-grade pad. My mother had bought the more mature pad for me before the third grade school year began at the local office supply store. I struggled with r’s because I felt they were too ornate, and looked too similarly to my p’s. I pleaded with my mother to buy me new pens that were more comfortable for me to write in cursive; I had to turn my pad at almost a full ninety degrees to get just the right angle of my writing. Over time, I came to enjoy writing for the craft, but it was in those early years that it was puritanically for its visual structure and symmetry that a simple protractor could prove my writing skills.
It wasn’t until I was a young adult that I appreciated my understanding and use of the written word. All credit is due to my English high school teachers. In my first class of my high school career, I met Mrs. Guy. Surly and proud, she was a put-together woman who took no less than monumental effort in enunciating every syllable that came out of her mouth. She was the first to tell me that my writing and reading comprehension excelled above my peers. She forced me to swap writing assignments with the presumed smartest, wealthiest and supposedly prettiest female classmate (not to mention the eventual Salutatorian) of our entire high school class, so that we might mutually critique our work. This seemed like an idle act of aggression by my superior but I appreciate it as a note of my equal capabilities today. Mr. Ninivaggi was the type of disheveled teacher, wearing tweed sport coats with patched elbows and bland-colored khaki pants every day, that you could imagine in college running into class late with books falling out from under his arms as the professor just started his lecture, every day. He introduced me to Rock Hudson and poetry and passion in writing, as well as discipline for writing as art of communication.
As a junior, I met Mrs. Bryce, the successor to the Advanced Placement English courses after Mr. Anderson became principal of the school. She had veins in her hands and forearms that I imagined if I looked at hard enough while she graded essays and tests I could literally see the cold, burgundy blood course through her. She once accused me of plagiarism only later for me to prove to her (by providing her all of the research on the topic available in the school and public library) that I hadn’t; she nominated that essay for a high school writing contest. She called my writing style “rigid” and “verbose,” she told the entire class–much to my embarrassment–that my interpretative reading of Shakespeare was “dreamy and delicious” and she recommended on occasion that I “think and not over-think” my writing to make it markedly more genuine and clear. I’ve always taken those words of advice to heart, as well as in her college recommendation letter that shocked me when she used the word chagrin in the opening paragraph. Bolded. It stood out. I hadn’t seen that word in writing about me before, I understood its meaning and I didn’t even read the sentence’s context before my heart sunk into a depression. I just saw the word and thought she condemned me. She didn’t want a college to ever admit me I resolved. It wasn’t until I had my mother read the letter to me that evening, as if a notice of truancy, that I realized her true meaning of the word. She was complimenting my hard work and ethic in having chagrin until my work was done to my satisfaction. She taught me a lesson even after she gave me that hard-earned A.
And then there was Mr. Houtz. I was a senior and ready to spread my wings and fly, um, write. He brought African tribal drums to the classroom and taught us to sing a ceremonial salutation song. He yelled and bum-rushed a student once and tackled him (and his desk) to the floor to demonstrate the insanity of character in a play. He told us to write our essays on envelopes and inside the covers of our textbooks and (with permission from Principal Anderson) on the wall in our building’s restrooms! (Okay, just kidding on that one, but it would have been fun!) It was my last class of the day and literally my final class of my high school career. So, it’s no wonder how profoundly my writing was influenced by my high school English teachers. It was a far cry from my days of slowly but surely forming every letter with a smirk and a protractor.