Lena, the english teacher
Lena wasn’t an English teacher so much as a social worker. I was one of her students my senior year of high school, part of the “at risk” program. No one was really sure what that meant, though our mayor got elected on it.
I had a big crush on Lena. She was younger than the other teachers and she turned me onto The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, by T.S. Elliot. Before that time I had thought poetry was just a bunch of dog shit written by stodgy rich Englishmen and pale sissies ridden with tuberculosis. In fact, I still tend to think that. But Lena showed me there were exceptions to the rule, that there was power in words because they represented the very building blocks of our thoughts, and it is our thoughts that create the world as we know it. In essence, she taught me that the ability to tell a story or turn a phrase just right actually reinvents reality.
I finagled my way into being her student assistant just to spend more time with her. She said she needed someone to organize her life. I started with her file cabinets. Sifting through official documents and such I found her role sheet and saw that The Administration had written down each “at risk” student’s chief infirmity next to their names:
James Tarpinian: sociopath.
Alix Lindsey: abandoned child.
Jamie Googs: rape victim.
Knox Dupree: borderline personality.
And so-on. One day, when we all walked into the classroom and the word “Why?” was on the chalkboard. I’m sure many of us often pondered the word. When we all sat down, she said, “Take out a piece of paper and a pencil and write for the remainder of the class period about this word.”
Everyone went into a tizzy. I merely wrote my name in the upper right-hand corner, then indented on the first line to write, “Why Not?”
The next day she asked me to stay after class and we kissed our first and only time against the chalkboard. The word “ardent” from our weekly vocab lay smudged backward on her black cotton dress.
When my friends rolled on me that Spring and I ended up in jail, Lena was the only person to come visit me. Everyone else either didn’t care or was too ashamed. She brought me books and told me that she believed in me. She said that she was sorry for what I was going through.
You’re a beautiful young man,” she told me. “Share it with the world.”
They fired her for reasons I’m unaware of and she moved away before I got out. Still, often when I consider giving up I remember the way she’d lock eyes with me as she quoted T.S. Elliot, saying, “Do I dare eat a peach?”
Without fail, I get the chills every time.
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