Last night, I had the honor of speaking at the Part-time Faculty Appreciation Dinner. The event was hosted by the CTLE and was a wonderful opportunity for adjuncts to network and to “talk shop.” Here is a copy of the speech I delivered.
By: Amye Archer
In second grade, Bobby Lewis caused our teacher to have a nervous breakdown. I was nine and her screams sounded like a siren in the dead of night. The girls in the class cried as the Principal paddled Bobby in front of us. I can’t remember what Bobby said that set her off, or what triggered her spontaneous madness.
In fourth grade, unable to stop me from talking, my teacher picked up my desk, dumped its contents on the floor in front of me, and threw the empty desk across the room. My father grounded me for a month. I have no memory of to whom I was speaking or what was so important that it just couldn’t wait.
In seventh grade, Jenna Beckwith and I walked once or twice a week to the small store across the street from our middle school and purchased a pack of Marlboro Reds for our social studies teacher. He sent the boys for booze, the girls for smokes. I can’t remember how he managed to pull this off. I can’t even remember his name.
In ninth grade, we learned we could leave at lunch and not return, explaining our absence the next day to our young, green, vice-principal by saying we had “female troubles.” I don’t know why we needed the extra time, who discovered this loophole, or how many times we used it.
During my senior year of high school, I was lost. I had transferred out of public schools and had been at Bishop Hannan for two years. I didn’t fit in. I wrote poetry, listened to John Lennon, and read Bukowski. I watched around me as my classmates, nestled warmly in the comfort of a better pedigree, walked forward into their future like the road had been paved for decades. Like they had the map of their life tattooed on the backs of their hands. I couldn’t commit to a college, I couldn’t commit to a path. But the clock was ticking and the forest thickened around me. The irony that I was a poet standing at two roads diverged was not lost on me.
Then, I met Anne Langan, my senior-year English teacher. Her classroom was number 214, at the end of the second floor hallway. At Hannon, we operated on semesters, so it wasn’t until the dead of winter that I first walked into her classroom. Over the course of a few weeks, we had the chance to do some creative writing. I wrote some poems, some short stories, and of course, lengthy papers on the role of women in Macbeth. Then, about halfway through the year, we were asked to write our own myth, in the tradition of the Greeks. I eagerly wrote mine after school. I think it took me an hour.
Later that week, when Mrs. Langan handed back those myths, she said something that changed the course of my entire life. “I’m a big fan of your work,” she said with a smile. My work? What did she mean? My cheeks flushed and my heart pounded. I hung around after class and asked for clarification. “You’ve got real talent,” she elaborated, “You’re a good writer.” Suddenly, all of those musings I had written in my journals, all of those poems I had given non-appreciative boyfriends, made sense. I was meant to be a writer. The trees parted and there was my path. I applied to Penn State the next day, and became an English Major.
My point in telling you all of this is not to throw my primary teachers under the bus. Rather, I’d like to tell you how one good act on the part of a teacher can outweigh a lifetime of bad. Sure, I can remember my desk being thrown and my second-grade teacher’s cries as she was led from the room, but those memories are clouded with a haze of insignificance, and the details of those events fade more and more each year. Yet, with Mrs. Langan, I can remember it all. I remember the snow melting against the windows, and the smell of the cute boy who sat behind me. I can remember Mrs. Langan’s pale skin and rose-red lips, the black-rimmed glasses that sat low on her nose. If I close my eyes long enough, I can still hear her say those words, the way she enunciated “your work”, like she was pushing them inside of me. I can still hear the clap of her tongue against her lips, and the shuffle of her shoes back to her desk.
That was almost twenty years ago, and yet, I live in that moment every day, in every class, with every student. As teachers, we have a power within us to change lives. That is not hyperbole, it is not romanticism. It is a fact. It’s a promise afforded to us by our very participation in this field. I spent many years in advertising, in middle-management when I graduated with my English Degree, (Imagine that, writing jobs were not lined up waiting for me). I made good money, had health benefits, and was well-respected in my field. Yet, something yearned in me, a desire to make the kind of impact on students that Mrs. Langan had made on me. When I quit my job, and decided to get my MFA in Creative Writing so that I could teach writing to college students, people thought I was nuts. But the paycheck I collect today is ten times more valuable to me than the one I collected then.
My reward is helping a young girl find her voice in a poem. My reward is helping a young man write a memoir about overcoming alcoholism and losing his father. My reward is mentoring a young college freshman writing a story about her best friend’s suicide. Those are stories and writers that I helped shape. Hopefully, if I’ve done my job correctly, those are moments that my students will hang onto and share with their colleagues twenty years from now.
Never forget the power you hold as a teacher. And never forget that one kind word, one good deed, or one supportive comment from you can change lives. I don’t know of any profession in which the potential for change and inspiration is so potent. What I’m doing here, at this University, what you’re doing here every day, it matters. It’s important that you always remember that. It matters.
Two years ago, I published my first book of poetry. The dedication read, “To Anne Langan, I’m a big fan of your work as well.”