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"It is always the English teacher who holds the dustpan." The last time I saw Mrs. Jones was in 1991. I had graduated from college and, proud of my accomplishments, came back to Douglas Anderson School of the Arts to find and thank the woman, the teacher, who changed my life.
I spoke to her classes that afternoon about the importance of self-esteem and setting high goals for oneself. I heard myself speaking, but I was somewhere else in that classroom, five years back, sitting at the corner desk with my fingers twisting and twisting that long black hair I once had.
In December 1986, my father, a rabbi and teacher himself, had brought me to Douglas Anderson School of the Arts, in desperation. I sat in the hallway while he went into the principal's office and spoke to her. I only heard a few of those words, in between the clutter of strange faces in the hall and the pit-pat of ballet-slippered feet on the white tile, but I knew why I was there and why they chose to whisper. In a nearby practice room, I heard the rhythmic clicking of a metronome, followed by a hesitant piano scale.
"I don't know where else to put her." My father's voice broke, and then I heard a muffle of a deep, authoritative female voice.
"Rabbi, I understand your position, but we only hold auditions in the summer. "For the first time in my life, I heard my father weep. I pressed my head tight against the green door, felt the cold on my cheek, and closed my eyes, tried counting to ten the way my therapist had taught me only a week before, breathing in on every number, then out, slowly.
My father's voice interrupted at seven. "She was raped by a group of boys at her school a month ago. She can't go back there."
I auditioned for The School of the Arts that day, sitting at the piano in the stuffy little practice room I had heard someone struggling in earlier. I lay my hands heavily on the yellow-stained keys and with my heart, with tears, with pain, I played Rachmaninoff, Beethoven, and finally, my father's favorite Chopin Nocturne. The teacher nodded, the principal put her hand up to her mouth and shook her head, and my father's face melted into quiet relief. It wasn't until Friday, however, that I met her, Mrs. Jones, when I was transferred into her creative writing class at 11:00 A.M. In my memories of her, she is always the same. She wore brown Sandals, a blue flower-printed skirt, and a wrinkled white blouse with its hilly collar bent. She held a constant confused expression and played with a charm on her necklace, sometimes the wisp of hair that often fell over her eye. As she walked closer to my desk in the corner, I noticed she was pigeon-toed. She didn't bend over me the way the other teachers had, but rather, knelt at my desk, and smiled at me, eye-level.
We'll be working in our journals today," Mrs. Jones said softly. She smelled like soap and mothballs and lilacs. "Do you have a notebook you can use as your journal?"
I could feel the inquisitive eyes in the classroom on "the new girl." A pretty blonde-haired girl in the front of the room mumbled loudly to her neighbor about my "special audition."
"Get to work, please," Mrs. Jones told the class. Please, I thought. I believe it was the first time I had ever heard a teacher say "please" to a student!
I pulled a green notebook out of my book bag and Mrs. Jones lay her cool, dry hand on mine. "I'm so happy to have you in my class," she whispered.
That journal, I believe now, saved me from insanity. I wrote everything that day and from that day forward; I turned myself inside out and dumped it into my green notebook the way I'd seen my mother plop her matzo balls into her chicken soup. I wrote about "them." I wrote their names down and crossed them out, then wrote them again and again, until it didn't hurt so much to hear them in my head. I wrote the word "rape" in red because it felt hot and burned and it was sore and I knew that even if I ignored it, it would not go away.
Mrs. Jones didn't judge my words the way the district attorney had. She didn't probe and pry and prick me like the psychologists or the nurse examiner at the hospital. She didn't insult and blame and scream like my mother initially had—or weep like my father—Mrs. Jones became much more than my English teacher. She was a partner in my internal battle, guiding me with her red-penned words on the many pages of my always-read, always understood, journal.
In 1991 I went back. I walked through the bustling hallway (I had arrived just as the bell rang), and was surprised at how young the students looked. Had I been so young just five years ago? No, I believe I was much, much older. By coincidence, Mrs. Jones was just leaving her classroom as I approached. She carried a crumpling cardboard box full of journals. At first, she just smiled, had that confused, but friendly look of unfamiliarity. And then it hit her. "Tali is it really you?"
I've been told that it is the English teacher, always the English teacher, who is directly faced with the at-risk students. The faithful dustpan carrier who picks up the pieces when they fall. Perhaps this is because writing so often mirrors our innermost fears and dark secrets, places where a science or math teacher have no grounds to step.
I chose to teach English because I had no choice.
I will never forget what Mrs. Jones did for me. It's been almost ten years since high school. I have my own group of students now and I, too, carry around a worn cardboard box full of journals. And a dustpan.
¬ 1998 Tali Whiteley
All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission of Health Communications, Inc. from A 6th Bowl of Chicken Soup for the Soul.