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Jun082009

An influential teacher retires

June 8, 2009

Sandy Martin, the high school English teacher who got me involved in newspaper, yearbook, speech, drama, and writing, retired at the end of the 2008-09 school year. On Sunday, June 7, I was among 27 speakers who surprised her at her retirement ceremony. This is what I said:

I have this recurring nightmare.

It’s late June and I’m in Mrs. Martin’s Room 104. The school has been turned upside down for summer—there are boxes and furniture in the hallways. The rooms are empty, except for the desk I’m in and a table with a typewriter. Custodians wax the floors. The air is thick with the scent of Pine-Sol.

Mrs. Martin comes in, bringing prints from the darkroom still wet with fixer. “How’s the yearbook coming?” she asks.

She does not panic. She does not hurry me. She does not point out that I should have been finished editing the yearbook, a major yearlong undertaking, well before school was out.

In this nightmare, I look down at a single sheet of notebook paper. It is blank. My pencil is broken. I don’t have the courage to reply: “I haven’t started the yearbook yet.” I just say, “Oh, it’s going well.”

She knows I’m lying. She says, “Let me know when you’re ready for me to type something.”

And then I wake up in a cold sweat. Thank goodness, it was only a dream. And for the record, editing the yearbook for me was never as bad as my nightmares. For example, in reality, my pencil was not broken. And in fact, I did manage to get yearbooks finished by the deadline. (More or less.)

So though the dream has some exaggeration, one part is accurate: Mrs. Martin’s calm reaction. She’s not freaking out for entrusting this project to a procrastinating teenage boy. 

But how can she be so calm? Is it because through four years of working together—in yearbook, newspaper, speech and drama—she’s gradually grown to trust my abilities? Perhaps. 

But she seemed to trust me before that, from the very start, back when I was a freshman. Sandy Martin was the first adult outside of my family to treat me like an adult. When I entered high school, I had enthusiasm to write but lacked the skill. Yet, even then, Mrs. Martin took me seriously. But this wasn’t just me. She was ready to accept any incoming freshman as an adult, as long as they showed enthusiasm, accepted responsibility, and completed the assignment.

She was supportive and nurturing. She let me write a humorous opinion column, Another Plank in the Wall, that was sometimes even funny. Once I wrote a column that suggested it was stupid to put a big cannon, an instrument of screaming violent death and evisceration, in the Columbus City Cemetery, a place of supposed quiet contemplation and reverence. Though this still seems a reasonable opinion to me today, not everyone agreed. People got mad. But Mrs. Martin was my champion, helping me shepherd controversial things like this into print. Other future editors I had rarely stuck their neck out for me the way Mrs. Martin did for me in high school.

This past week, I found papers I wrote in high school for Mrs. Martin. While it was great to see complimentary comments she wrote, “Excellent,” “I really enjoyed this,” “Well done.” It was also good to see the comments that made me better: “Unclear,” “Rework this,” “Awk,” short for “awkward.” After a while, even the comment “OK” was enough to send me back for revision. But more than that, I enjoyed her margin notes, with ideas and comments, it was like being back in 104 having a conversation with her.

To sum up briefly what I gained in those four years is near impossible. I boil it down to confidence. She made me better by what she said and how she treated a kid like me as a trusted equal. She made me better by letting me tackle big projects, which gave me a glimpse of things to come. When I wrote a 100-page term paper, I thought, “Now I bet I could write a book.” When I wrote numerous news stories for the paper, I thought, “I could be a decent reporter.” When I was picked for all-state speech, I thought, “I’m OK speaking in front of people.” When I wrote my high school humor column, I thought—well, I never found anything really useful I could do with that. But Mrs. Martin provided opportunities to build my confidence. And I still draw on that deep well of confidence today.

So, Sandy, even though this may be “awk,” I want to say this to you upon your retirement: “Excellent.” “Well done.” “I really enjoyed this.”

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