A personal story. It’s not an accusation – it’s just a few words that I’ve had in outline form for a long time. I’m tired of seeing the draft go through various digital incarnations, from Lotus to Word.doc to Word.docx. I’m pushing it out the door, taking away its leftover power. The errors are all mine, embraced and sent out into the world.
I’m writing this, neither to spoil the legacy of someone who others hold dear, nor to complain about sunsets long past, but to remind people that sometimes we know different versions of the same person. Words of praise are deeply worthwhile; sometimes, though, words conveying truth that all might not embrace are equally important. My little story will have no lasting impact on anyone who had a different experience. People can say they had a different experience but not that they disagree with me, because the words herein are true and these experiences are mine to share.
After high school, I wrote letters to all the teachers who I thought were deserving of a kind note or word. There were many. Many of you who know me have read some of my individual words of praise. I’ve written a lot of them to the dear people in my life before they’ve passed, so that they can be warmed by knowing that someone remembers them and cherishes that part of our lives that overlapped.
For me, Mrs. Creighton was not someone I admired. I tried to like her, to look past her scowl and directness. After a few interactions, though, I discovered that I wasn’t imagining things and that she simply did not like me – and for no reason I could discern. I was mostly a quiet student, usually scared and frightened by life, and didn’t give her a reason to lash out at me. Maybe if I had known her when her teaching career was younger or if she had simply voiced aloud why she detested me immediately, maybe then I would have had an opportunity to understand her.
Before taking her class, I had heard the rumors. I had also heard all the larger-than-life stories about her, of her military background, of her personal eccentricities. I went in prepared to pay attention and stay off her radar. (Please note that I am paraphrasing words in my story. They aren’t exact quotes but the content and feelings elicited are accurate.)
After one of the first assignments in her class, one in which I poured myself and creativity into over 5 extra pages of writing, she responded with this: “C student. Some are not destined to extend their reach. Quantity doesn’t replace talent.” She had only red-lined two words out of the entire body of my assignment. The girl on the right of me had a paper that looked like a chicken has scratched it for an hour. She had a large “B” across the top of her paper, however. When Mrs. Creighton had announced the assignment, I was one of the few in class who didn’t dread it. Writing was easy for me. Maybe not grammar or syntax, but the act of writing was effortless and I tended to write something each day. I was stunned by the C grade, especially given the extra writing I had done. But the words justifying the grade punched me directly where I lived. They seemed irresponsible, almost hateful, coming from a teacher.
I reluctantly waited after class and asked her what I could do to not be on her bad side. She laughed a staccato burst as she so often did and said, “Nothing. There’s nothing you can do. Now run along,” waving her arm dismissively toward the door.
As quiet as I was, I told her that it was unacceptable for her to give me a “C,” and not just because I was afraid to get a lesser grade. I told her that if I couldn’t stop her from disliking me even though I had never interacted with her that I could object to her grading my assignments with an unequal eye compared to my classmates.
“I don’t take kindly to threats, young man, and if you persist you’ll find yourself in the principal’s office explaining your behavior.” She stood up from her desk as she said it.
To which I replied, “If I’m going to the principal’s office for some personal reason on your part, I might as well have him take a look at my work. And if you think you scare me, I’ll tell you stories about my dad.”
“The grade will not be modified. Now please leave.” She once again pointed to the door. I left, shaking my head at the idea I was going to endure a semester of that sort of treatment.
I should point out that I wasn’t afraid of getting a bad grade to make a point. While my final GPA was about 3.6 (when 4 was the highest possible), for example, I deliberately flunked trigonometry in my senior year, after getting over 100% in a previous semester in Geometry. My problem is that Mrs. Creighton needlessly used her words to squash me. Had she given me a “C” without comment, I would have been perplexed, but would have never said a word to her. My personal life had beaten into me the idiocy of expecting fairness; she was simply another example.
I was a voracious reader, writer, and loved the power of words. She gave me one assignment that I simply didn’t understand. I told her that I honestly just wasn’t getting it and needed guidance. With the iciest of looks, she told me, “I can’t make you understand. Read the instructions again.”
Toward the end of my term with Mrs. Creighton, my dad had punched me in the face after coming home drunk and finding me practicing my French horn for band. It always angered him that I loved band. He hadn’t warned me or said a word to me. He simply sat the bottle of whatever whiskey he was drinking on the table and punched me while I was playing. I dropped the horn, which was school-owned, and I fell to the floor. Luckily, my dad had drunkenly misjudged and his fist had hit me on the outside of my right eye. By the next morning, the black eye was mostly confined to that side of my eye, although my ear was still ringing and my face was sore. I got a pair of broken sunglasses that had belonged to my brother and wore them to school. I put them on in each class to cover the dark smudge on the side of my eye. I had never covered such bruising or signs before, not really. Dad was usually very careful to conceal his brutality, a habit I learned later that most abusers share in common.
When Mrs. Creighton came in to the classroom, I had forgotten to take the glasses off. She shrieked at me in front of the entire class. “Take those foolish glasses off now! You are no Tom Cruise by the stretch of anyone’s imagination!”
After class, I approached her desk to apologize.
“Don’t apologize to me. You know the rules.” I pointed at my eye and said, “My dad sucker-punched me when he came home drunk, Mrs. Creighton.” She held up a hand to stop me. “Perhaps if you’d behave your father wouldn’t see the need to discipline you.”
It was that moment when I knew that her heart was stone to me.
I took being tardy seriously when I was in school. One day, I had walked back across campus to return a personal book a teacher had loaned me. Mrs. Creighton had semi-shouted from quite a distance down the hallway “Where do you think you are heading?” I heard her but didn’t turn, because I couldn’t imagine she was addressing me.
“Mister, I asked you where you are heading?” Something in her voice caught my attention.
I turned and politely said, “Back to the band hall.” I wasn’t being snarky, funny, or impolite. I was just answering her question. I kept walking.
“Stop!” Mrs. Creighton seemed miffed at this point. “Are you trying to be humorous? If so, you are failing.”
“Just answering your question. Another teacher loaned me a personal book of hers and I just returned it. I have no class now, so I’m not tardy, and am going to go practice in the band room.” I answered without any rancor, as I wasn’t in the mood to get into any trouble.
“Next time, don’t be in the halls after the bell rings.” It was a command.
“Thanks, the bell hasn’t sounded yet, though.” I said and turned to get away from her.
“Did you hear and understand what I said?” Mrs. Creighton had decided that I was being impertinent, if the icicles hanging in the air were any indication.
“I understand where you are coming from, yes.” She knew the deeper intent of what I had said.
I saluted her and walked off, putting her dislike of me out of my mind. I expected to be hit on the head by a thrown object or to hear a screaming demanding that I stop again.
PS: The book I’m talking about in the scene in the hallway, that novel was loaned to me by the teacher who had written it. It was an unpublished novel with mature content. He had trusted me enough to want to share it with me, to see how much work goes into writing a well-crafted book. And I had read his book, turning the unbound printer’s copy of his book one sheet at a time as I read them. His goal was to always remind me that grammar could be learned but creativity and inspiration were things that had to be nurtured. He encouraged me to stop worrying so much about the process and instead develop the habit and love of reading and writing. I read his book at home, getting a glimpse of his mind, and of another world of possibilities. The example of my other teacher who had authored a book and shared it with me to encourage whatever hope or ambition I might have- his example is a testament to what a teacher can and should strive for. I was the same student, the same person in each teacher’s class. In one, I was a waste of time and nuisance. In the other teacher’s classroom, I was a nascent mind needing some guidance. (Sidenote: the subject of the teacher’s novel involved the consequences of a man drinking and driving, which is a strange coincidence when aligned with my life.) I remember Mrs. Creighton being so mean in the hallway precisely because I felt a little magical, being trusted enough to have the printer’s copy of an author’s book in my hands.
But, through the years, I read kind words offered by ex-students of Mrs. Creighton and think of her. I wish I could recall her brusqueness with warmth; instead, I picture the look of scorn on her face when she interacted with me. Whatever caused her to dislike me before she knew me was obviously something outside of my control. Perhaps she saw someone she once knew in my eyes or thought I was someone I was not. After her passing, I discovered that her anger wasn’t a secret, just as much as her wry sense of humor. I felt a little vindicated that others shared on the receiving end of her sharp tongue. Whatever demon that possessed Mrs. Creighton to be so angry toward me luckily was one she didn’t apply to many students. It lifted a little of my burden to know that I hadn’t been crazy – that she had disliked me without cause and the burden of ‘why’ was entirely on her shoulders.
You might ask, “But what good does it do to share criticism of her now?” Firstly, because I am still here and it’s my story to tell. Each of us navigates through life and leaves a history in our wake. Not all of it is to be admired and the stories might not be ones we’d like to be recalled after we’re gone.
That might be the point of it all, though. We are the sum total of our moments. There are so many I’ve forgotten, even important ones. Whatever my motivation, this story is mine to share, just as it is for those who had a different experience.