In the summer of 1980, I had just finished the fourth grade and also my last year of elementary school. I would be crossing over into the unknowns of middle school the next year, and I didn’t know yet how different things would be. My third and fourth grade years in school were two of my best. I was so fortunate in those two years to have been in the same classroom, with the same teachers each year, in an environment where I felt safe, supported, and even loved.
Somehow, within those years, within the walls of that classroom, or “suite” as it was called then, I found confidence in myself. This was no small feat. In those two years, the three teachers in my suite made me feel as though I had something special to offer the world. I had never felt that way until they ignited that spark in me. In particular, they all recognized and fostered my writing talent. I remember my poems being featured on bulletin boards, and my short stories being entered into contests. But most of all, I remember being told that I had talent—and somehow—believing it. One teacher in particular, Ms. Garwood, always seemed to find opportunities for me to shine, to highlight my writing. Instead of us performing a play from a book, she would let me write one for my classmates to perform. She did this for other students, fostering their talents, finding ways to make the classroom a place where we all found our own paths while learning everything we needed to, and understanding the importance of appreciating one another’s gifts.
Somehow, I knew things would never be quite the same in my future classrooms. I struggled the following years in middle school, as everything seemed to be changing so fast, and being popular became more important than finding talent in one another. I honestly felt like I had slipped into a black hole once I stepped onto my middle school campus. The one thing that kept me going was remembering the love and support of Ms. Garwood, and her belief in me. Even though I felt that I didn’t fit in, and that some of my best friends were moving into different circles and leaving me behind, I remembered that I had someone out there who believed in me and had no doubts about my success for the future. I can’t express how powerful that was.
I don’t think any of my teachers or friends for that matter knew how hard things were for me at home. I couldn’t even articulate it myself. Children that take dance lessons, that have enough food, that do well in school—these don’t add up to things not being right at home. These aren’t the signs of an alcoholic father and a broken marriage at home, and little pieces of my confidence and self-worth were taken away as things got more and more tense. I would tell myself I was fine, when I wasn’t. I would keep secrets and smile when most of the time I felt as if I was so fragile I could crack apart and disintegrate at any moment. There wasn’t anywhere that felt as safe to me anymore. I was still a good student, but the rules of school seemed so different once I left the safe nest of elementary school. A few teachers still called out my writing talent, and many were supportive, but it wasn’t the same cocoon I had felt so safe in. It was the last time I would feel that for a very long time.
But that summer before middle school, I didn’t know any of that. I just knew I was sad that I wouldn’t see Ms. Garwood anymore. I wondered if she knew how special she was to me and how much I was going to miss her. And then, she asked to come by my house. She said she had something for me.
I can remember this moment as if it was yesterday. I was sitting on the kitchen counter in our house, alone, and I looked out the window to see Ms. Garwood arrive. She was wearing a purple dress, and she smiled as she walked up the driveway. I don’t remember exactly what words she said, I just remember how heartfelt her words were as she handed me the gift, a blank book to fill with more of my poems and stories. I remember we laughed as she showed me how the pattern on the spine of the book somehow perfectly matched the material of her dress. She read her inscription out loud to me. That moment, that book, her faith in me…it meant the whole wide world to me. That book was so much more than a book. It was belief in me. It was belief in a talent I had only quietly dared to hope I had. It was love.
She left, and for awhile we kept in touch, but without the magic of social media and email, cell phones and affordable long distance calls, over the years, we lost touch. But I never ever lost the feeling of her love and support. In times when I felt alone and struggled, even well into my adulthood, I would draw strength from that moment and her belief in me.
At first, right after I received her gift, the book almost seemed too precious to write in. I didn’t want to put anything in it except my absolute best work, the most beautiful poems, my most exceptional stories. The result was blank pages for a long time. But I kept the book with me, always. I finally broke down and starting writing poems in it, once I had finished my usual pattern of scribbling on notebook paper, changing lines and words, and finally reaching a finished product in the margins and on the back sides of five or so pages of paper. Once I had the completed poem in its final stage, it would go into the book. And then I added another and another. Then I added a short story. And another. I was still picky about what made the cut. It couldn’t go into that book unless I felt it was worthy of the love behind the gift.
The book traveled with me through middle school, high school, and college; carried in back packs, purses, and packed in an untold number of moving boxes. I had such a fear of losing it, that when I moved, I would always mark the box it was in with a big star so I could make sure that box made it off of the moving truck. If possible, I hand-carried it to my next destination.
I had finally filled its pages seven years after the book was given to me. The filled pages were my heart poured out in ink on sometimes tear-stained pages, lamenting loss, longing for love, and enduring the pain of my first heartbreak. Many of the pages also help me remember what the world looked like to me through my eyes then, the reality of the storm at home, that at times is still foggy in the midst of my mother’s denial. These pages are a truth, a touchstone, so I know that my memories are real. Painful, but real.
For years after that, I bought my own blank books and filled their pages. I always dreamed of being a writer, but in some dark times of my life, when I lost sight of so many things, I would give up, let go of writing for awhile, and the words stopped flowing. Without fail, I would be cleaning or packing and come across the purple book—its edges faded and worn from years past—and start reading my own words, then Ms. Garwood’s words, and I would find my way back to pen and paper.
Blank books later morphed into blogging, which really became the place I felt I was finally honing my skills and getting somewhere. It took a long time, but I got published-- an essay in a magazine I loved and admired-- and I felt things shift. Since then, in the middle of life and work, and everything else, I am working harder than ever to make this dream of finishing my book happen. I got the courage last year to finally attend a writing workshop and get that final push of feedback from a successful author that I was indeed ready to do this—ready to write, ready to finish my book.
It has taken a long time, but the words I am writing now had to grow from all the things I have lived, seen, and known. I am a better writer for the time it has taken to get here. I finally can see a glimmer of hope of achieving a dream I have had since I first picked up a pencil in my tiny hand as a child. I am getting closer.
I can say without hesitation that I was first given the confidence to do this by an amazing teacher, Ms. Garwood. She walked up my driveway in her purple dress thirty-four years ago, and handed me her belief in me, and her love for me, that I have carried with me every day since.
A note: Ms. Garwood (now Mrs. Sidden) and I recently reconnected on Facebook. Her first post on my wall mentioned this book, this gift. I let her know I still had it, and I had planned on sharing photos with her. I saw that her birthday was approaching, and I decided to write this blog post-- as I couldn't think of a better gift than for her than to see how much she has meant to me all these years.