Writing Roots

Recently a booklet made its way back to me: Poems for a Favorite Friend. It’s a collection of pieces that I wrote during my eighth grade year and gathered as a gift for my seventh grade teacher, Mrs. Woodford.

Mrs. Woodford saved my gift for forty years. It was returned to me after her death. I’m touched that she kept it so long, but maybe I am making too much of this. Teachers are notorious packrats and, on close inspection, it seems the construction paper cover has never been folded open as one might do to read the contents.

In any case, the collection offers a look into my early writing self. Like my poem
SNOWFLAKES, which includes these deathless lines:
                        People murdering, kids a’flirtering
                        And snowflakes still fall.

Were I Mrs. Woodford, I would have laughed out loud. Such a serious subject matter for a kid — plus she was death on what she called “desperation rhymes,” a term she may have coined with me in mind. But what I knew from her was nothing but respect and admiration.

Which I could have returned wholeheartedly except for her habit of tucking her Kleenex into her bra.

Mrs. Woodford created that necessary safety zone where writing – no matter how ridiculous – flourished. But she didn’t stop there. She loved to travel and her enthusiasm spilled over as we studied ancient civilizations. We chalked huge murals of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. We memorized short pieces of poetry, which we recited together after the Pledge of Allegiance and a patriotic song every morning.

We learned poems by heart that have nourished me ever since. To this day I cannot walk into the woods without intoning: This is the forest primeval, the murmuring pines and the hemlocks bearded with moss and in garments green stand like druids of eld, (from Longfellow’s Evangeline); or, in times of trouble, I find myself whispering these words from Hamlet: This above all to thine own self be true, and it must follow as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.

I was sitting in Mrs. Woodford’s class, watching the even loops of her handwriting slant their way across the blackboard, when we found out President Kennedy had been shot. The news came over the loudspeaker from the principal’s office. We looked to Mrs. Woodford for how to respond, how to make sense of this event. I remember that tears shone in her eyes (which would undoubtedly lead her to reach into her bra for a Kleenex). She asked us to observe a minute of silence in face of this enormous tragedy. Then we sang God Bless America. The comfort of the right music at the right time. She taught us that, too.

I suppose it should be noted that Mrs. Woodford was not perfect. She overlooked it when John Klaverweiden sprayed air freshener to disperse the cooties every time Susan Edwards walked past his desk. She made Eddie Filiberti cry in front of the class when she felt he was too braggy about a good grade.

But maybe that’s partly why I remember her so well. She was a living, breathing, fallible human being, warts and all – in fact she did have a rather large warty/mole on her left cheek – but for some reason, I knew she was on my side. She believed in me in a way that helped me believe in myself and, as it turned out, most importantly, my writing.

Research suggests that it only takes one encouraging teacher to make a writer. So I am wondering. What writing teacher made a difference for you?

 – Laura Kvasnosky



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7 responses to “Writing Roots

  1. I bloomed later and didn't start writing until a few years ago.The first teacher who encouraged me and said positive things about my writing was one of my advisors at VCFA!It was so amazing to me that someone, a real writer, an author, found good things in my writing. She belongs to this blog– I'll not mention her name.I realize an MFA program is unusually late to get that first encouragement; it took a lot of courage for me to apply to VCFA as it seemed out of my league.This advisor's belief was enormous to me and helped me believe in myself. She helped me believe I am a writer. She is amazing and an incredible and talented teacher.I fall back on her words when I have tough writing days. I actually have an encouraging note she wrote to me that I printed up, and it's hanging in front of my desk. I read it every day.I have wondered many times if I would have started writing earlier if a teacher in elementary school or middle or high school would have noticed my writing and encouraged me.

  2. My fourth grade teacher made a huge impact on my writing life, not by encouraging me to write but by helping me become a reader! I started writing in second grade, but I HATED reading. None of those boring books the teachers taught interested me. But in fourth grade, my teacher gave me a Judy Blume book and changed my life! She had a little book area in her classroom full of books she probably paid for herself, and she encouraged us to read the kinds of books we WANTED to read — anything! This teacher made me into a reader, and that has made a huge difference for me as a writer. It reminds me of my audience, that I'd like my books to reach those kids who are like me when I was younger, those who have yet to be hooked into the world of books!

  3. Calvin Atwood, my English teacher, freshman year in high school, gave me a book of 20th century poetry. He inscribed it, "For Louise, who will find and give treasure, everywhere, always…" When someone believes in you like that, something is lit, sparked, that can't be extinguished!

  4. the teacher who most encourage me was Miss Schwartz at Pauling Johnson School in Vancouver. I was in grade 3. She let me and Graham stay in the class at recess and draw. We drew nothing but scenes of cowboys (and cavalry) and Indians. I was good at gruesome deaths; Graham did ace horses. She loved what we drew but I think she was the kind of teacher who would have loved it had we drawn sticks. Oh, and she supplied with endless reams of paper; that chunky kind of paper with wood still floating in it.

  5. I'm stuffing Kleenex in my bra as I write this… Let's see, the teacher who made a difference for my writing, although I've never told him and I doubt he knew, was my 7th grade English teacher, Mr. Wenner, a tough vet with a crew cut who sneered at Viet Nam protesters, and got me to stand and read out loud a piece that I'd written. I was mortified. Tall, skinny, with stringy hair, sure that a public reading would prevent my ever being accepted by the popular kids, I read my short story (it included a line about an iron steaming like a locomotive–a line I still remember because I had worked hard to come up with that line!). I wanted to crawl under a desk. But his affirmation of my writing was something I'd remember long after the popular kids had passed me by…

  6. Laura, what a thought-provoking post! I adored Jim Ernst, my 8th-grade English teacher, who simply loved literature and shared that love with us every day. But to be perfectly honest, the teacher who made the biggest difference to me in terms of my own writing was a teacher just about everyone in my high school hated (including me, at times) – we called her "Biddy" Byars, and she made us diagram sentences until we ready to drop dead with the effort. That might not sound like the path to Ultimate Creativity, but it taught me to have a respect for the well-constructed (artful) sentence – something I've never lost. Understanding the way a sentence flows, understanding the music of how it's constructed – what words impact other words and how their placement in the sentence affects that impact – I couldn't have spent a year doing anything better for my writing! So – Jim Ernst, thank you for the inspiration, and Ms. Byars, thank for the perspiration!

  7. Oh, I love to boast about Mrs. Mordica, my 7th and 8th grade English teacher. I went to a rural country school with only one class per grade and Mrs. Mordica was my literary beacon, just pulsing with the passion of reading and writing. Poe, Cervantes, Wordsworth, Crane…she brought them all to Anutt, Missouri. She wore bright red lipstick, always had a coffee cup on her desk and smelled like cigarettes. She was about 5 feet tall, had black, pouffy permed hair and graded our papers with a red felt tip pen. When I graduated from 8th grade to go onto a big town jr. high, she gave me a graduation gift of a blank journal on which she'd written "'Keep Writing!' Mary S. Mordica" on the inside cover. Twenty five years later, when I found out my book was getting published, I hunted her down and lo and behold, she's still as feisty as ever. I asked her to read the first three chapters of my second book in preparation for me entering into a contest. After hemming and hawing about how she wasn't really qualified to give this advice and this was just her opinion, she said, "Nina, one of your talents is descriptive language and in these first three chapters, you use a lot of cliche's which is just plain lazy." Feeling like I was back in 7th grade and Mrs. Mordica had just scrawled "just plain lazy" on my assignment, I bowed my head, blushed and went back to make the changes. At 80, the lady's still got it and I'm so thankful to have had her in my life back then and I love that I'm STILL learning from her now.

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