If you were lucky, someone likely came along at some point in your life and set you straight–leaving in their wake a person who might have otherwise traveled a different path. A less interesting path. Or maybe just a less inspired one. And if you were especially lucky, this person came along when you were young. Or perhaps it wasn’t a person but a moment, or an event, or a book.
I was spectacularly lucky in this way. I got both a person and a book. In tenth grade it was a teacher who I’m certain has no idea he caused the ripple whose effects are felt all these years and miles later. This was a man who would be so into talking about Great Expectations that he’d get lost somewhere along the way and take a big drag off the chalk he had just used to write DICKENS in giant, reverent letters on the blackboard.
He is the same teacher who taught us about Alan Ginsburg and the Beat generation, the same one who encouraged rap in the classroom, and who had us write about modern-day saints. My group chose Madonna. We thought we were being defiant and brave and ironic. And then one day he asked us to write something inspired by The Grapes of Wrath and something got all fired up inside of me. Out came an essay about the Dust Bowl, complete with a sweltering coffee shop and a migrant love affair. I can still remember the ambience I was trying so hard to replicate—it wasn’t in the manner of Steinbeck at all really. It was in the manner of made-for-tv movies and Nanci Griffith songs. And it probably wasn’t very good, but it was good enough for that teacher to make a point of telling me I was a writer.
Until that moment, I did not know this. I knew I was something–an observer of people, of the aesthetics of the insides of things, high school hallways and stairwells and lockers–something, yes, but not a writer. Those were the days when I begrudged Fitzgerald for Danielle Steel and Sidney Sheldon. And 15 was for me an age that inflicted a daily amnesia on my teenage brain for things in my very recent past. Things like swing sets and roller skates. And also books, special ones like Sweet Valley High: Power Play and also, The Cat Ate My Gymsuit, which as is turns out is The Book.
I know now that my tenth grade prep-school self had long since forgotten reading about Marcy Lewis and the excuses she used to get out of gym class. Gone were the incensed feelings I felt when they fired Ms. Finney because she wouldn’t say the Pledge of Allegiance. Same for the disturbed chills I had gotten when Marcy’s father called her fat, told her she was a nuisance, told her to play by the rules. And lost—buried somewhere with my friendship pins and Tretorns–was the memory of Marcy falling in love with herself through writing, learning from this teacher who wouldn’t salute the flag, to salute herself. To pay attention, to write it down, to tell her story. Because she mattered. But I remember now.
I write because of Ms. Finney and my tenth grade English teacher and because of Paula Danziger and because both pre-fifteen and now well post-fifteen, I have been changed by things people write about in books—early on it was The Trumpet of the Swan and the 2nd grade teacher who read it chapter by chapter, day after day, until the end came and I wanted to rest my head inside my folded arms on my desk and cry. I think in college it might have been Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, and recently it was Edward P. Jones’s The Known World. These books are filled with stories and characters and ambience and history and pain and joy and they are filled with the kind of reckoning that comes with resilience and moving forward through life.
So, I picked up The Cat Ate My Gymsuit recently again because I often tell people that the reason I write books for kids is because no books have ever spoken to me quite like the books of my childhood and my adolescence. And it’s true. I carry The Cat Ate My Gymsuit around with me the way others carry around Catcher in the Rye. Mine might not be as high-brow, but it’s mine. And I salute it.
The same way I salute my teacher for taking the five minutes it takes to change a child’s life, and I salute Paula Danziger for holding up a mirror for me, so I could see that I was more of a Marcy Lewis than a Jessica Wakefield anyway. And I salute all the books that hold up, that stay with us, and those that will stay with our children, lighting their way with the sparks that ignite change, and sending them—on fire!—into the world.
The Books I Remember Best…My pure nostalgia reading list (having nothing to do with the wonderful world of present-day books like this year’s Newbery winner, Katherine Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan, which will surely stay with and change lives again and again.):
Lyle, Lyle Crocodile by Bernard Waber
The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White
Millicent Maybe by Ellen Weiss (I was just so happy that someone else had trouble making decisions!)
Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
Ramona and her Father by Beverly Cleary
Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret by Judy Blume
The Cat Ate My Gymsuit by Paula Danziger
It’s Not the End of the World by Judy Blume
Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh
Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt
2 thoughts on “Jessica Wakefield, Paula Danziger, and me”
This is such a wonderful post! I found myself thinking of my own influential high school teachers as I read, although the teacher who had the most impact on my writing was actually my math teacher and not my English teacher. She once asked me what a character was thinking, advised me to get into their head, and I’ve been stuck listening to their voices ever since. 🙂 I don’t know if she realizes what an impact she had on me then, but I wish my kids could have studied under her, too. Unfortunately, she’s retired now. It’s a shame – she was an excellent teacher.
My sixth-grade English teacher was another very influential educator. She was also my good friend’s mom and when we graduated from high school, she gave me a whole kit full of tools to help me on my writing way. I still use them; they have pride of place on my desk. 🙂