In Remembrance: English teachers

Several nights ago, exhausted from a day of intense editing, I was in that foggy chasm between wakefulness and sleep when I was struck so powerfully by an idea that I forced myself awake, grabbed my journal from the nightstand, and sat in the dark, scratching out the words buzzing in my head. Satisfied that I had gotten the gist of the story down, I collapsed in a heap and slept almost ten hours.

A few days later, I sat down with my journal once again (this time there was plenty of light, thank goodness!) and tried fill in voids of my chicken scratches to create the story that had been haunting me. I wrote for several pages without stopping, just letting the words flow. When I finally took a breath and went back to see what I had written, I was disheartened. These words, although meaningful in their own right, were not the story I wanted to tell. [Tweet “These words, although meaningful in their own right, were not the story I wanted to tell”]

Frustrated, I walked away. I looked for other things to keep me busy—anything but the story that called to me. I doubted everything about the story and my writing skills because it was a story I was desperate to understand while knowing that I never could. It was the story of how one of my students, a fourteen-year-old far too clever for his own good, grew into a young man who drowned just as the world opened up to him. I learned of his death more than a decade later (he was one of my students while I was in Peace Corps) and continue to be saddened by the loss of this young man. Any story that I write simply must do him justice.

Today, I decided, was the day I would write his story.

But the right words wouldn’t come, no matter how hard I worked to tease them out of hiding. In an effort to trick my brain into writing and spark the flow of words, I looked for a flash fiction challenge that spoke to me. A quick, simple story, a few hundred words that I could whip out in about an hour. I visited Charli Mills’ Carrot Ranch, which I discovered last week, and read the prompt:

January 14, 2015 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a life span. It can a life of a person as if flashing by or the life of a honey bee. What key elements would show a lifetime in brevity? Does it add to a character’s development or create tension? What is the emotion or is it void?

I then proceeded to bang my head against the keyboard until one of my writing partners told me to snap out of it. I promised I would, said I would spend the next two hours writing *no matter what* and then sneaked over to Facebook. (I know, I know.) Scrolling through the posts, I stopped on one that made my heart break: My high school English teacher passed away this weekend. She was ninety-two. She taught in our school district for more than four decades, retiring just two years after I had her for senior English (during which time she publicly admonished me for my continued use of the split infinitive while whispering to me not to change it if the writer in me said to keep it).

I became determined to write the story of my student’s death, out of respect for my own teacher, who supported me in ways for which I could never thank her. I opened a new document, called forth my muse, and banged out a story…about my English teacher. Yes, my muse has a wicked streak in her that is a mile long. So now that I have given you this long introduction, here is my response to the Carrot Ranch prompt this week:

Beehive hairdos and saddle shoes recite conjugations on demand. The restless seniors do not intimidate my new arch supports, knee-length polyester skirts, and freshly printed diploma. I chaperone juniors through Romeo and Juliet but fail to eradicate the split infinitive from the incoming army of bell bottoms. My determination carries me forth, diagramming compound sentences across verdant walls as neon miniskirts and bouffant bangs stare back at me. Still, I am mortal. As my shoulders hunch and my skin puckers, I cannot withstand the text-message jargon invasion, until one day I am no more, erased like a superfluous comma.

RIP Miss Jenkins

[Tweet “My muse has a wicked streak in her that is a mile long”]

 

 

Comments

  • I truly believe that knock-your-saddle-shoes-off writing comes from the courage to write into truth where encouraging English teachers and gone-too-soon students dwell. Your post alone was profound and had me in a heap before I even got to your flash. I’m honored that you would grace Carrot Ranch with this homage to Miss Jenkins. I’m sorry for your pain and your loss, but grateful that you battle it with meaningful words and getting the story right no matter how long it takes. Thank you for riding with us this week! I hope to see you out on the writing range again.

    Charli MillsJanuary 19, 2015
    • Thank you for your lovely words, Charli. I am buckling down on that other work today…I will (WILL) get words on the page! 🙂

      C. JaiJanuary 20, 2015
  • January 20, 2015

    […] RIP Miss Jenkins by C. Jai Ferry […]

  • A beautiful tribute to a lady who encouraged your writer’s voice. I enjoyed the humour in the flash as much as the deep emotion. I hope that you find the words you need and want to write that other painful story. Another flash in the night may come and the words will flow.

    • Thank you, Irene. I was lucky to have a lot of encouragement to write when I was younger, even if I didn’t see it back then. The things that inspire me to keep going today are such little moments in time from so long ago. They also make me realize that every word matters.

      C. JaiJanuary 23, 2015

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