Betty Big Cheeks Becomes a Teacher

Throughout my educational journey, I had some alternatively great teachers and some stink bugs. I’m awed at the ones that stick out of my mind’s tree. These branches are the strongest and most vibrant. Like words, I would not be a complete teacher without all of their pieces lining up and standing for something, giving it meaning. I can feel their tremendous influences but I am not weighted down by the pedagogical-pedestal that I have given them.

I don’t remember much about the day that Marsha Chapman altered my course indefinitely, but I do know what I was reading. It was 2002, and the beginning of my junior year of high school. While my friends were reading Sara Dessen books, and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, I was in 1958. I was listening to Connie Francis, Ricky Nelson, and Elvis. I was spending time with Truman Capote and reading Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

I was early, per usual, for my American Literature class. Capote rested atop my collection of notebook, text, and school novel, Ethan Frome. Edith Wharton’s lovely words spent days bubbling in my teenage brain. Ms. Chapman walked by my desk and paused. She looked at my shining, silver Capote cover, smiled, and nodded. She asked if I started the book yet. I told her that I had and it was really good and making me think. Our conversation was brief, but she said “you are ready for undergrad my dear”. At the time, I didn’t know what exactly the word “undergrad” meant. My parents went to college but that’s the only word I knew.

Ms. Chapman was always one of my favorite teachers. She has an energetic personality that resonates with her students. She is a quiet soul with a gentle teaching style that fosters learning and old-school understanding. She assigns writing. Real writing! Long hand drafts and tangible outlines. I was always comfortable with her and excelled in her classes. They were my favorites because of the way that the students were encouraged to not only have original thoughts but to follow them through and share them.

That day I stayed after school and we struck up a conversation. I asked her what undergrad was and she explained eagerly, checking my face for reaction. Me? I was ready for college! I was sixteen, and my favorite teacher thought I was ready for college. She was talking about concepts and using words like “analysis” and “literature based inquiry”. I was all too geeked. Ms. Chapman said I was ready for college! I was smart enough for college already! Her comments bolstered me and in that afternoon, I became Betty Big Cheeks, a name I still use to refer to myself.

I told my parents about the great declaration. This seemed not to be the shocker I thought it was. They looked at me with the “well yeah” look that all parents seem to have and know how to use well. I had not released government secrets. They knew what Ms. Chapman knew. Funny how adults know more than kids.

The rest of my junior year strolled along, taking its time, before rolling into the grail that was my senior year. Throughout the remainder of the school year, I took over the writer’s club with my best friend. We were co-captains of the cruise ship and we published two books of student writing and art work. We were able to sell our books to the student body and it was my first experience as an editor. During this time period, I also discovered poetry and began going down the path of authorship that I still stride along today.

I’d been a short-story writer but found myself gloriously stunted when it came to character development. I found poetry and began writing with a teenager’s wildly centric abandon. I had never asked a teacher to look at my poetry. I’d taken creative writing courses, and my teachers read my stories, but poetry was much more personal. There was so much more me on the page. But when I did go to a teacher, it was Ms. Chapman.  Patient and kind as ever, she read my odes and ides and provided nothing but helpful hints and taught me my first lessons about enjambment, poetic diction, and style. I trusted her. Ms. Chapman was the only grown person to read my poetry aside from my mom. She told me I was a writer, and like I believed my mom, I believed Ms. Chapman as well.

2003 finally arrived and I was a senior. Betty Big Cheeks rides again! Ms. Chapman selected me to be her teaching assistant. Every day, I spent fourth hour in her class of freshman. This meant I could grade assignments! I could file! I! Could! Make! A! Bulletin! Board!

It was the best part of my year. I watched my favorite teacher in action and I learned the behind the scenes “stuff” that made her class challenging, but yet also a safe creative space. She showed me how to plan, how to read assignments, and how to think like a teacher.

When I graduated from high school, my plan was to double major in English and history. I was going to be a high school teacher. Then I majored in journalism for a minute. Then I changed my major back to English and I minored in journalism. Throughout college, I kept going back to Ms. Chapman. I asked questions about teaching. She wanted to hear about my learning. She was an anchor. She was more than mentor can hold.

Now I teach, and I’m technically, according to the law, and general principles of mathematics, one of those smart adults. Ms. Chapman is my friend, and she is always the North Star in my teaching sky. I attempt to repeat her grace with my funk. Her quiet nature is my long laugh. I am her, and I carry her influence, but I am not her either. I am everything she taught me. I am a sixteen year old with Truman Capote. I am a twenty year old studying Emily Dickinson. I am a twenty-three year old crying because Derrida hates me. I am a teacher, and I am not sure I would be if it wasn’t for her Breakfast at Tiffany’s conversation.

Ms. Chapman was the beginning for me. She could show, not tell, me how to be a teacher. Her compassion for not only me, but for every student, shows vividly in her actions. She continues to do what is best for the young readers and writers in her classes. She is my living, breathing Frank McCourt. My teacher woman. Every time I walk into a classroom, and I see the eager faces of my little duckling college freshman, I think that I will tell one of them, “I see you in grad school one day” and see what happens.

 

This is in celebration of inspirational women and Women’s History Month

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(Above: This photo is of me when I received my bachelor’s degree.)

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