My elementary school years are long dark hallways jostling and crowded with pain. One day I will write about it, but just now it’s enough to relegate those years to a big, bound box in my mind’s attic. Let the dust cover it, let the rats gnaw the corners, I’m not going up there anytime soon to open that box up.
There was one man. Big, loud and unforgiving. And so full of life and love for each and every student that was fortunate to be in his classroom, that if there are hero-songs to be written, teacher movies to make, then they need to be about him.
Here’s a man who wrote regularly to those of his kids who did time, to “do time, but don’t waste time” and wrote them through getting their grades done — and up — behind bars. Here’s the man who let students turn up at his door, cry in his arms when their mama passed from Aids, who laughed when kids screamed at counsellors “if I get him again next year I’m gonna kill myself!” because of the rigor of not being allowed to ease up on spelling, right grammar and knowing your voice and how to raise it. Here’s the man who dropped presents around to his kids, who otherwise would draw a blank on Christmas day.
Here’s the man who calls student work displayed as A-grade when it shouldn’t be, the Hall of Shame, and pushes students to get real grades, and do better, not just be patted on the head and moved on up.
Here’s the man who told a young woman he met in hospital to get him another bunch of college forms after she admitted her guidance counsellor threw them in the trash and told her she wasn’t college material — and completed them with her. That young woman now has her Masters.
This man kicked over two desks to demonstrate a direct object. This man poured his heart, soul and voice into making all his students realize that not trying, that giving up, not doing our absolute best was not an option. The only fall back was not falling back, but running faster and longer.
Here’s the man, one bleak November day, who looked into the eyes of a buck-toothed, messy-haired 9-year-old white girl with no friends and deep down thinking she didn’t have what it takes to keep walking this world, alone and all, with her words and yearning for that other strange planet she knew she was from and would never find and said:
You are going to be one of the great writers of the 21st century. Stay focussed, and never stop working. Never stop reading. Never stop writing and pushing yourself, because I can see in your eyes that you can do it.
This man mailed this girl ten books a year, across the globe, with the brief note “A writer has to keep up her reading.”
To meet him after all these years on the steps of the New York Public Library, hug him, hand him my novel, go pay our respects to Winnie the Pooh, and to then say thank you. This is the stuff dreams are made of. As we parted, his words were for his students. “I try everything I can to light a fire under my kids. I try ‘til I’m exhausted from all my trying. I tell them, I’m not preparing you for your next grade — I’m preparing you for the world.”
Mr Jimmy-Lee Moore, thank you for preparing me for the world I still don’t fit. I am the teacher, writer and person I am because of you.
So are all the others you’re teaching, and still teaching every day, across the years, no matter when they sat in your classroom.