As teachers begin their well-deserved summer break, I want to post this as a tribute to the teaching profession, in general, and to the memory of one teacher, in particular.
My parents bought their first house in a quiet, working class neighborhood that had a sweet, little K-3 elementary school. I attended that school from my first day of kindergarten until my last day of 3rd grade. Then, much to the chagrin of my very white working-class parents, the school district I attended decided they needed to “better integrate” their elementary schools. To do this, they bussed the children in my neighborhood across town, for their later elementary years, to an urban school that was fairly diverse compared to our little neighborhood K-3 school. I wasn’t at all bothered by the move. I loved my new school. I loved how, unlike at my nearly all-white K-3 primary school, I could look around there and see all kinds of interesting people – children and adults alike. One such “interesting” individual was my sixth grade teacher.
When I was in school, sixth grade was still an elementary grade, and middle school was called “junior high” – grades 7-9. Being in sixth grade meant you were at the top of the heap for one last year before junior high knocked you all the way back to the bottom. I was looking forward to being “on top” in my last year of elementary school, but I was apprehensive about this important milestone. Looking back now, I owe a huge debt of gratitude to my teacher, an amazing woman by the name of Betty Fatzinger. It was she who saw, in me, something that took nearly half a century for me to discover. She saw a spark…a slight glimmer… the raw makings of a writer.
I openly admit that I didn’t want any part of it at the time. In fact, initially, I didn’t even want Mrs. Fatzinger as a teacher. There were two 6th grade teachers – Mrs. Fatzinger and Mr. McNulty. Everyone wanted to have the “man teacher.” He was the only male teacher in the school, apart from the P.E. teacher. He was cool and fun and funny. My best friend Penny had gotten him, and I was super bummed that I had not. Mrs. Fatzinger was…well…just like any other teacher. It wasn’t until a few weeks into the school year that I realized how incredible she really was. Like many teachers of the era, she was a middle-aged lady. Her hair reminded me of the 101 Dalmatians character Cruella Deville’s hair – jet black with a big streak of silver in the middle, but hers was curly and meticulously coifed. And, let me tell you, that woman totally rocked the blue eye shadow thing! She wore stylish (for the times) pantsuits, always with matching shoes and jewelry, and she was NEVER without her jewelry (albeit of the costume variety – but hey, she WAS a public schoolteacher, for God’s sake). Ultimately, I came to love this woman, with all her eccentricities.
I was a painfully shy, insecure, awkward, and overweight girl who, with a late December birthday, had started school later than many of my classmates. So, I was older than most of the students in my class. Having already experienced the bodily changes of puberty, I felt incredibly uncomfortable in my own skin. Mrs. Fatzinger recognized my plight. Who knows why, but she just seemed to understand. Perhaps she’d had a similar experience growing up. Perhaps she just had a loving and compassionate heart (as so many teachers do), but she truly seemed to “get it.” Bless her! She even tried, on my behalf, to intercede with my parents, telling them at conferences how I, “seemed so unsure” of myself and how I “seemed to lack confidence.” How do I know this? Because my mother promptly came home and told me, adding that I, “just needed to start believing in myself”. In reality, I was, most likely, clinically depressed. My lack of confidence was just the tip of an entire iceberg of emotional and psychological issues. Unfortunately, my family believed, at the time, that professional mental health services were “only for rich people.” So, sadly, Mrs. Fatzinger’s words had fallen upon deaf ears.
I continued to suffer in silence…until I found a conduit for my pain – writing. I began to write poetry, mimicking the verse form I had heard in music. Music was an art form I loved dearly, from a very young age, and, at the time, I dreamt of a career in it. My parents made their thoughts about my aspirations clear; it was utter nonsense. I begged for music lessons – guitar, voice, flute – anything. They relented when the prospect of free instruction at school presented itself. I played the flute for a few months but got discouraged when I couldn’t pick it up instantly. After that, I asked for a guitar for Christmas and was elated to find it under the tree on that Christmas morning. With only books to guide me, though, I struggled to teach myself to play. My parents finally broke down and got me a few lessons with an elderly gentleman in our neighborhood. The lessons were cheap, which appealed to my dad, but the guy was pushing seventy and his musical repertoire reflected his age (yup, think Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue). I was, again, disillusioned and quit. Labeling me a “quitter,” my parents refused to allow any further “waste of time and money.” My pursuit of instrumental music instruction was over. Later, however, in Junior High, I had the chance to take choir, as a class. I embraced the opportunity with gusto, and I implored my choir teacher to give me voice lessons. She tried to deflect my interest by tossing me a guide to reading music and assigning me homework from it. My enthusiasm was quickly deflated. In hindsight, it was my teacher’s way to “let me down gently,” because, truth be told, I simply didn’t have the talent to pursue a career in music. I laugh when I think about it now. All this time, however, I continued to write. I wrote poetry. I wrote stories. I wrote “song lyrics.” I created comics. Still, it never once dawned on me that that might be my true calling. My parents never discouraged my writing, but any mention of doing it as a career was dismissed with comments like, “That’s not a real job,” and “You can’t make a living doing that!”
In the spring of 6th grade, we were working on a poetry unit. Mrs. Fatzinger told me she was particularly impressed with one of my poems, and she suggested that I submit it to a local poetry contest called “Poetry on the Busses.” Winning poems would be displayed on city busses for a period of time, for riders to read and enjoy, and the authors would be invited to do a public reading of their work. To my amazement, I won! I’ll never forget the nervous excitement I felt as I read my poem aloud in public, at the winners’ ceremony. All summer I found reasons to ride the bus, just so I could see my work on display. I never would’ve attempted such a thing were it not for the encouragement of Mrs. Fatzinger and her belief in me. The feeling of accomplishment winning that contest gave me has stayed with me all my life, and it was all thanks to her. What’s more, that experience was like the planting of tiny seeds – the seeds of a writing career. It has taken many, many years, but the seeds have finally begun to grow.
A good teacher knows that when our students look into our eyes, they must see our unwavering belief in all they are capable of and all they can be. I became a teacher, because of the many wonderful teachers in whose eyes I saw that. I found my heart’s desire, however, because of one. Betty Fatzinger passed away two years ago. I learned of her passing when I came across her obituary in the local paper. I wept. I never got a chance to tell her what she did for me. I never got a chance to thank her. Thank her? How on earth can you thank someone for such a gift? I know what Mrs. Fatzinger would say. “Don’t thank me. Just write.”