21 March 2007

Notes from 1994

I just got the best envelope EVER. Oh my gosh.

Okay, some back story: fourteen years after middle school, I'm still in touch with my seventh grade science teacher, Debe VanSteenderen (then simply "Ms. Dankel"). She is perhaps my greatest influence as a teacher -- she was weird and wacky and strict and hilarious and encouraged us to be as weird as we possibly could -- and we ran with it. And we learned a TON. I can still recite the path of the blood through the heart (and I can do it REALLY FAST). Most importantly, she taught me -- in middle school, when conformity is at its absolute height -- that it's okay to think outside the box, that you get credit just for being weird and funny. As a teacher, I often measure myself by her example, and ask myself what Debe would do. When I feel really discouraged and uninspired, I call her for advice. When I'm in Wisconsin, if at all possible, I visit her class and admire the projects her students have done (she makes them do reports on animals and then they have to make hats to wear while reporting on those animals -- some of them are quite elaborate!!).

Anyway, apparently Debe has a folder of stuff I made for her (or just gave her) in middle school. Today, I got a big envelope full of relics from Middle School Molly. Sometimes I wish I could know myself as a kid -- know what I was like, from an adult perspective -- but then I think I might have been the kind of kid that you secretly want to punch in the face all the time. Hard to say, really. This envelope was like a secret message from a long-ago-me, calling into the future (and saying, I guess, "Don't forget what a FREAK you were, Backes!!") Inside the envelope -- there's a copy of this Christmas book I made for Debe, a parody of The Night Before Christmas, adapted to include lots of 7th grade science inside jokes and strange little illustrations and general middle school weirdness. (Sample verses: The panties were hung /by the ceiling with care, / In hopes that Ms Dankelclaus / soon would be there ... And Ann in her jammies / a pillow over my head, /About to go to sleep / (We sleep in seperate beds).

So weird! So stupid and funny!

And THEN, there's a copy of this story I wrote in 8th grade, called "The Evil One," which is a 6 page long single spaced EPIC about how the evil ghost of a taxidermied squirrel put a curse on me and followed me through the school. My 8th grade English teacher, Mr. Hoffman, gave me an A++++!! That's the best grade I EVER got in my life. At the end of my stupid little story, he wrote: Molly, A++++, You amaze me -- this is wonderful - so well-developed and your choice of words is great! You could rival S.King in some of his chapters. You are a writer! I am so glad to read what you write! Mr. H

Looking back, I am astonished by the degree and depth of support and encouragement I had as a kid -- no wonder I came back to teach middle school! What a powerful statement that was: "You are a writer!" And the fact that Debe keeps a folder of stuff 13-year-old Molly made her, a hundred years ago? Amazing. And in the card she sent, she says: I stopped by Nate Mahr [8th grade science teacher]'s & Sandy Owens [7th grade geography teacher]'s rooms and relayed your greetings. Nate started talking about some fish drawing he has from you. You have really touched the lives of those who taught you.

You might be thinking, what kind of person still gets validation from her middle school teachers? Oh man, I tell you, only an extremely lucky one. I feel like I've come full circle here -- now I'm the crazy middle school teacher -- but I'm SO lucky to still have my old teachers and mentors to lean on a little. And really? The fact that I have had this person in my life keeping my stories and projects, watching over me and encouraging me, teaching me, for fourteen years now? I'm absolutely blessed. I only hope I can give as much to my students someday.


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