I'll never know how my sixth-grade teacher, Mrs. Frost, stifled the urge to push me out of my cult mindset, because she is certainly dead. I left her classroom more than 30 years ago, and how she was able to mark my essays with an A grade when she most certainly must have wanted to scream is beyond me. She somehow found the ability to encourage my writing while never crossing the line into what could have been construed as condemnation of my faith.
Not once did she utter a word of disapproval. As I would imagine is true of all great teachers, she must have yearned to push my religiously-imposed boundaries on creativity aside and see me write about things that didn't progress into biblical rants about Jehovah's Witnesses. But she didn't. Not once did she question what I wrote, nor did she ever cause me embarrassment. Not once did she acknowledge my blatant attempts to convert her to my faith.
Towards the end of that same year, a gym teacher discovered my sister's bruises and called the police. I will never know how much angst that must have caused her to report the abuse of a child to the authorities. How does a teacher handle a decision such as that? Two officers showed up on our driveway the next day, and my parents assured them that they would not inflict any more bruises. The officers left our home, satisfied with the promise, and my family then left town to join a new congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses in Wyoming where we hoped that people would not know about our bruises.
Mrs. Ronci entered my life in Wyoming. As teachers are wont to do, she doled out many writing assignments, but I had stopped writing about Armageddon about then. Teachers were not likely to be receptive to my proselytizing, I had realized.
Mr. Smith became my creative writing instructor shortly after. He taught me some wonderful literary skills that I had not previously grasped -- the proper use of pronouns, for example. Mr. Smith once instructed all of his students, including me, to write a very specific and personal essay about the love of our parents. His assignment was so foreign and unrelated to my life that I couldn't complete it. I couldn't tell Mr. Smith what my home life was like. I couldn't write about my parents, or the hunger, the anger, or the loneliness that was pervasive all through my childhood -- so I copied a story from a magazine in the school library and changed enough words to believe it had become my own.
Mr. Smith was so pleased by my essay that he read it out loud to the entire class. I squirmed in my chair and listened to words that weren't mine being read from a homework assignment that had my name written at the top, and wondered what would happen if my deceit was discovered.
It was discovered, two months later. Shortly after he found the original story from which I had plagiarized, Mr. Smith pulled me in to his office to discuss what he referred to as a private matter. After a stern lecture and threats to flunk me, he changed my course grade from an A to a C. An F would have been devastating. A C was a gift.
Just a few years ago, when my memoir was close to being finished and I had begun writing for the San Francisco Chronicle, I found myself thinking about Mr. Smith and what he had done for me. I should find him, I thought. Perhaps I would forward a few of the warm and fuzzy gardening stories I had written for the Chronicle to him. Surely he would be pleased to know that I had become a writer and had outgrown my juvenile immorality and willingness to plagiarize. He would remember me, I was certain. Perhaps he would forgive me, I hoped. Maybe not. No, perhaps he wouldn't forgive me. Plagiarism is an evil thing. It would be best to wait until my memoir was published and send a paperback copy to him, I decided. It would explain everything.
My memoir was published two years ago, and in our modern world of internet capabilities, it didn't take long to find Mr. Smith online. He was dead. Just a year earlier, Mr. Smith had passed away. He will never read my book. I wish I could have talked to him before he died. I wish I could talk to many teachers from my past whom I remember so fondly.
Today, I find myself thinking about teachers in general and the enormous responsibility that comes with their duty to teach and protect children. Is it a burden, I wonder? As gingerly as they must trod through the regulatory landscape in our education system, how do they focus on their teaching obligations when caring for children who have stories like mine?
If Mrs. Frost were alive today, would she remember me? I'm sure she is no longer influencing the lives of children, but I'd sure like to tell her how she influenced mine. For all of those teachers who must yearn for children to be free from abuse or religious indoctrination, I'd like to let them know that I did escape from what was imposed upon me as a child. Sometimes, children do emerge, somewhat unscathed and undamaged from their childhoods. I am one of them. Looking back, my teachers affected my life, and for that, I am thankful.