Through the years, I have been privileged to have learned under some remarkable teachers. The first was Miss Clark, my kindergarten teacher when I attended school in Lakewood, New Jersey. From Miss Clark I learned freedom to express myself; in other words, I found my voice. Miss Clark validated that shy, insecure girl who would spend her youth moving from one town to another, by praising me for my class oral presentations and roles in plays. “Shirley loves to speak in front of the class,” she wrote on my report card. As a teacher and public speaker, I still do. It was Miss Keller in seventh grade who was influential in my writing career. She did not instill in me a love for writing, but by motivating the class to write not essays, but creative compositions, Miss Keller inspired me to use my imagination in ways I had never considered. Dina Linnett was the unforgettable instructor at the Rutgers Writing Project, a post-graduate class I took one summer. Did I miss the beach that hot summer? No! It was the summer I was invited to write–write anything I thought of. What an idea! And write I did, from children’s books about talking dogs to short stories where men transformed their lives in the space of a day, to essay memoirs dealing with the indelible mark of family. By inviting me to write and setting up editorial partners and group work in the writing process, Dina Linnett planted a seed in my life as a writer simply with the invitation to WRITE. She also established a template for my work as a teacher of creative writing at the college. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Dr. Laura Winters, my teacher, friend, and dissertation adviser at Drew University. Laura not only introduced me to the giants in literature and poetry like Willa Cather, Virginia Wolfe, Seamus Heaney, and Mary Oliver, but opened a treasure trove of universal ideas which shimmered between the lines in every work of art. She made me see writing as not just an occupation, but a higher calling, and spurred me to write numerous poems and, eventually, my memoir, My Mother’s Shoes. I was a student in three of Laura’s classes at Drew, but would have taken all, if I could, with this wonderful teacher.
Then there are those teachers who are not teachers in the orthodox sense of the word. My dear cohort of loyal friends has advised me in all aspects of life, and taught me, in turn, to listen—my friends are more than friends, actually. They are sisters. From my sweet brother, Jack, who survived a traumatic brain injury at age 25 to become a federal court judge, husband, and father, I have learned perseverance; from my beloved husband, Arthur, I learned never to accept others at face value; from my children, I learned patience, flexibility, and, ultimately a myriad of ways to open my heart. Finally, from my parents, Charlie and Betty (see photo above), I learned to face the world with a sense of optimism. And perhaps that is the best lesson of all.
Now it’s your turn–who was your best teacher?
Until next time–Shirley