Dear Mrs. O,
You used to stride into class, balancing your generous curves and armload of books on a pair of dainty high heels, and immediately the room of thirty-plus girls would settle down into quiet anticipation. English Lit with you was our favourite class. Well, at least, it was mine. I sit here now, trying to recall all the novels and plays and poems you introduced to us, and for the first time I realize their astonishing variety. To Kill a Mockingbird. Othello. The House of Bernarda Alba. Trojan Women. A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen. Short stories: The Lottery by Shirley Jackson, The Monkey’s Paw by W.W. Jacobs, Long Walk to Forever by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., May Day Eve by Nick Joaquin. The poems of Walt Whitman, Rainer Maria Rilke, Robert Frost.
From you I learned a lot about what and how to read, but also a lot about what and how to be. You stand out in my life as one of those unforgettable characters: gregarious and charming, yet sharply intelligent; a firm disciplinarian, but always fair; courageously outspoken, but never unkind. Everything about you seemed larger than life, from the huge gold medallion that you always wore, to your sweeping, expansive gestures and your infectious laugh.
I deeply respected and admired you, Mrs. O, but because I was, in those days, diffident and shy, I never really got to know you beyond your persona as a teacher. This will always remain one of my biggest regrets, because I think that if I had given myself the chance to know you better, I would have been less in awe of you and learned a whole lot more. And I would have so much more to remember now than a few lines on a page and the sound of your laughter.
At first I thought that the news of your passing was terribly sad to receive on Christmas Eve. I think of your family and my heart goes out to them. If I feel your loss so keenly, what must your own children be going through?
But now I think that maybe—just maybe—it’s something that I needed to hear at this very moment.
I’ve been wondering, lately, if I’ve bitten off more than I can chew: starting a challenging new job and learning French and going back to school in the new year. But I find myself wishing, now, that I could have told you about the degree I’m working towards: a joint specialization in literature and history. I think you would be proud.
So, for many reasons, but today, especially for you, Mrs. O, I’m firming up my commitment to this next venture of mine.
I have beside me an old notebook in which I copied some of those old poems. Here’s a snippet from Letters to a Young Poet:
How should we be able to
forget those ancient myths that are at the beginning of
all peoples, the myths about dragons that at the last
moment turn into princesses; perhaps all the dragons
of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see
us once beautiful and brave. Perhaps everything
terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that
wants help from us.
For you must not be frightened, if a sadness rises up
before you larger than any you have ever seen; if a
restiveness, like light and cloud-shadow, passes over
your hands and over all you do. You must think that
something is happening with you, that life has not
forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand;
it will not
Just as I looked forward to your classes, I’ll look forward to seeing you again one day.