An Ode to English Teachers

I originally titled this as just an ode to Mrs. Ryan, but then I was hosting a fake interview with my future self in which someone asked me about the three teachers I’d listed at the top of my acknowledgements, and I knew that I had to talk about all three of them and not just the beginning. And if you’re truly about to tell me that, as a writer, you don’t host fake interviews with yourself? Stop lying to us both.

I’ve had a lot of English teachers over the years. Not just the ones for required classes in elementary, middle, and high school, but a wide breadth of them in extracurriculars and throughout my Creative Writing & English majors in college. The list is probably creeping on thirty, if not over it, but, when I eventually write the acknowledgements on literally any book I publish, there are going to be three that stand out.

I don’t have a lot of memories pre-teenage years, and most of my teenage ones are pretty fuzzy, but I do very clearly remember fifth grade English. I had Marge Ryan for a teacher, and though she wasn’t my homeroom teacher, I spent a lot of time with her. In one of our classes, she gave us prompts that were half a sentence and told us to finish them. I sped through each of them, brought it up to her desk, and asked if I could bring it home and write more sentences for each. Obviously, she was thrilled and said yes.

I came back the next day with long paragraphs for each of the prompts, and Mrs. Ryan was everything you want a teacher to be. She was excited by the paragraphs, read through each of them slowly, and commended me on a job well done. She might have stopped there, but, instead, she asked me if I’d like to write a story for any of them. I hadn’t even considered that idea, but it seemed even more amazing than just a few paragraphs, so I eagerly took the sheet back and brainstormed for the rest of the day. When I got home, I furiously started writing a story based on one of the prompts, and you could say that the rest is history.

Something opened up in me with that first story, and another one started to bubble up. Mrs. Ryan had given me to the end of the week to write my story, but only a day or two into it, I knew that it wasn’t what I wanted to hand in to her. I set it aside and started working on the first of the Elizabeth series, a sprawling set of stories that detailed a princess named Elizabeth who befriended dragons and went on wild adventures. She was, obviously, everything that I wanted to be in the world, so she had curly red hair, bright green eyes, and lots of freckles. She was beloved by everyone she met, she wielded a sword, and she was set to be queen someday with her best dragon friend.

When I brought the story in at the end of the week, Mrs. Ryan was surprised and awed. Someday, I’ll have to ask her what that was like, receiving the unexpected from one of her students and wondering where it would go from there. She asked if she could keep the story over the weekend to read, and I gladly handed it off. I didn’t think anything would come of it, not until Monday morning rolled around, and the rest of my life truly began to take shape.

Mrs. Ryan handed back my story, which had a notecard attached to it for my parents, and she asked me if I would be willing to not only let the other students in my grade read the story, but to do a meet & greet with the author. She said those words, with the author, and I just–I’d never been called that before. I read books fervently, but I’d never written them, and it just had never occurred to me that I could. I’d been making up stories my entire life, but here was someone, an adult, telling me that it was an option for me. I was absolutely terrified of the idea of standing up in front of my fellow classmates, but I thought of bold, brilliant Elizabeth, and I told myself that I could do it.

It’s pretty obvious, I think, why I originally titled this post just after Mrs. Ryan. She was truly the turning point in my life, and she set me on the course for a future of writing books. She was not only kind and encouraging, but she gave me the gift of confidence and purpose, and I’ll never, ever forget that. I am eternally grateful to her for the path that she set me on, and every book I write is with her in my heart.

I’m grateful, too, that it didn’t end with her. I had several English teachers over the next few years, many that continued to encourage my writing, but a few that told me it wasn’t worth my time, and it wasn’t until my sophomore year in high school that I finally found another person to believe in me and to tell me to keep going. Scott Chiasson taught both standard English classes and creative writing electives, and I was taking any English or writing class that I could get my hands on at that point, so I landed in his class, where he introduced us to To Kill a Mockingbird, talked about the importance of poetry, and helped us craft our own short stories. By then, I’d started writing a different series of novels, Chronicles of Kings, which I won’t tell you the original name for because no thanks. I was deep into the second book, and I knew that I was going to need to revise the first one, but I’d never revised something before, and I didn’t really know what that looked like, so I asked Mr. C if he would be willing to read the first book and give me feedback.

I so badly wish I could go back to sixteen-year-old Mary and give her a shake, tell her to not be such an asshole. I know, now, how truly awful that book was, and it would take years before it got anywhere even kind of passable, but Mr. C read the whole thing and prepared an entire hour worth of feedback. We met after school, and he’d written in notes all throughout my book, which immediately threw my defenses up. This was my first experience with constructive criticism, and I didn’t like it at all, so I argued with Mr. C the entire time. At the end, I told him that I thought the plot was just fine, and it didn’t need any changes, and he just gave me this fondly frustrated sigh. He could have told me that I would understand in the years to come, but he didn’t. He could have said that it would be a long while before I was writing at a standard that was worth publishing, but he didn’t. He could have disregarded my haughty, overconfident nature, but he didn’t. Instead, he told me that my thoughts on the book were valid, and that there were really good bones inside of it, and that he would be interested in reading a second draft. And that, more than anything, propelled me forward. The fact that he continued to encourage me, even after I’d tried to bite his head off, made me look twice at his notes. Maybe he was right in some spots. Maybe I could flesh some of the scenes out a little. Maybe the beginning did need some reworking.

Maybe I could actually do this, write a book.

I worked on that series for twelve long years. All throughout high school and college, and well into my adult life post-school. I do wish that I’d let go of it sooner, but it taught me a lot, and I’m glad that I stuck with it, too. I wouldn’t be where I am if I hadn’t kept trying to write it over and over again. And you know what? It might have sucked every single draft, but each one was a little better than the last, and I was learning how to write well every time I sat back down with it. And it was, in the end, one of the things that got me into the creative writing program at UMF.

At the time, they were only accepting sixteen students into the program, and there wasn’t a single creative writing major in Massachusetts, so I refused to apply to a single other school, created a beautiful portfolio that does, admittedly, make me cringe in several different ways now, and sent it off with my application. My parents like to give me grief about how stressful that was for them, that I just outright wouldn’t apply anywhere else, and fair! I was stubborn as all hell and wanted what I wanted, and I wouldn’t back down, and Mrs. Ryan & Mr. C had told me that I could do it, so I was going to do it, damn it.

Thankfully, I got into UMF, into one of the coveted spots in the creative writing program, and my world started to change in big ways. I’ll never forget my advisor sitting me down, during one of the very few sessions that he actually met with me–I was an overachiever and did most of his job for him well ahead of schedule–and told me that I either needed to stop taking literature classes or apply for a double major in English. Every single English & writing course that UMF offered, I took. We were mandated, in the program, to take at minimum two intro & two advanced writing courses. There were eight offered, in total, so I took all eight. I found ways to wiggle into every single literature class–with the exception of the American ones, they had to strongarm me into taking what was required for the double major–and I was often surrounded by students older than me. I was bound and determined to squeeze every ounce of education out of UMF, and while I had a ton of fantastic professors, I’m always going to remember Pat O’Donnell with the utmost respect and gratitude.

Pat was the professor for the fiction writing courses, which were, for obvious reasons, the ones that I gravitated toward the most. While I did really enjoy the poetry courses, and I even interned at the publishing house on campus, Alice James Books, as well as write a few books of poetry, fiction writing was always going to be where my heart lay. Even with nonfiction, where I definitely fibbed on several different stories and did not write nonfiction, and screenwriting, where I had probably one of my most humiliating moments in school ever, but still enjoyed the course nonetheless, fiction writing is where I shine.

College was, however, also the time that I started following the belief that, because I was an “adult” now, I couldn’t read young adult or fantasy. They were for a younger, less wise type of person, and college students read elevated literary fiction. (This is bullshit, I’m aware.) Pat was the one that helped steer me away from that, and while I would flounder in that belief for several years to come, what she taught us in the fiction writing courses will stick with me forever.

“Fantasy is fiction.” She truly could have stopped there, but she continued to remind us that genre fiction was not worth anything less than literary fiction, that including magic in our stories did not make them less worthy of readership. She promised us that fantasy was worthwhile, that we didn’t need to write hard-hitting, studious, slow burn stories, that we could write with dragons and swords and last alliances between elves & men. She was one of the people that thought my idea to do an all-day marathon of Lord of the Rings sounded amazing. And while I didn’t give her any of my novel drafts, and we never met after class to discuss work outside of what I was writing for school, she gave me some of the best feedback I’ve ever received for what I wrote for class, and she gave encouraged me with the same kind of confidence that Mrs. Ryan & Mr. C had in years prior.

We met once, toward the end of my college career, to talk about what was next in my writing career, and she told me to keep going. She told me that my stories were worth telling, that I had talent in my words, and that I should never give up. And I haven’t. I’m still writing, and it’s because of teachers like Pat. It’s because of the words of encouragement that Mrs. Ryan gave me, the strong belief that Mr. C had in my work, the promise that magic was always worth it from Pat. They continued to lift me up, to tell me that I could and I should, and I’m never going to forget them.

I don’t know when my first book will be published. It could be in a year, or it could be in several years. It doesn’t really matter when because it is going to happen someday, and I promise that you’ll see these three names at the beginning of my acknowledgements, because without Marge, Scott, and Pat, I wouldn’t be the person I am today.

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