Becoming a Writer: Excerpts From a Letter to My Teacher

Do you remember my  first essay, the one with a few wannabeparagraphs, invented words, non-existent grammar rules, drawn out words that desperately sought to fill the white space with ink? Next to the second sentence and a somewhat deformed word—probably one of the newly created ones—you wrote “Yuck!” into the margins. I had to look up what that word meant. I kept that essay, the one I rewrote many a time so you could give me an actual grade. Today, it marks an important milestone in my relationship with writing, the English language, and with you as my image of a gifted, invested, committed, caring teacher.

As I was working my way through the assigned readings from the Norton Anthology (the book sits on my book shelf at home with detailed notes in the margins, highlighted phrases, and fallingapartpages glued back in) every night, I read and reread paragraphs, looked up the meaning of words, played with them in my mouth and tried them out in different syntactic environments. I had previously done that with my native language German, and with French, too, to a certain degree at least, but I had never, never before wanted to sound eloquent and authentic so painfully badly. I knew then and I know now that it was because of you that I cared so much about improving my skills; you cared about English, and about me, too.

So, during class, I would observe your pronunciation so very closely and then try to imitate it on my way down the hallway. You aspirate “wh”, and since you asked us many questions every class, I heard it all the time. I wanted to try it, too, even though I realized that other people don’t necessarily pronounce “wh” that way. I just wanted to adopt it anyway, maybe so I could sound like you just a little bit more. So I did, and I’ve kept it in my little collection of words and pronunciations that I take from other mouths and that remind me of them and their owners upon usage. You memorized poems with us, read paragraphs out loud to us so they would come to life, and you cried over John Updike’s “Separation”. In class. You were prepared every day, you gave us new words to learn every day, and you expressed yourself, seemingly effortlessly, in the most beautiful way possible. You always read my lines carefully, each one that I handed in, proofread them closely, gave me very honest, blunt feedback, told me to go back and do it again. So I did, because you were so good at everything language related, and so kind. I didn’t want to let you down, nor did I want to let myself down, because I knew I had it in me.

Now, realizing that I have internalized and made English part of the fabric of my soul to the degree that I think, dream, and feel in it without much rational control over its appearance in my mind and heart, I am realizing that you were one of the first people to formerly facilitate my becoming an English-language-and-literature-lover and a writer. Truly, I am falling deeper and deeper in love with language, with learning new words, with filling the white space with the most lively words and syntactic structures every day, and this has been going on for a long time now. Basically since my heart first started pounding. I used to ask myself

Where does it come from, this prickly feeling in my chest? It seems to stream out of the middle and into my every vein, up into the tip of my nose, and down to those of my fingers and toes.

Here is an attempt to answer this existential question:

As long as I write, I am alive, I am in love, in love with life, connected with life and other people. Every time I meet a person, I learn a new way, their way, of putting life into a unique word or collection of words – from their perspective and with their godly humanity in it. And when I write, I seek to make sense of it, of them, capture the magic, write it into everlasting being. And all reciprocalities apply in all statements.

You are a phenomenal teacher, because you love English, work on your own skills and foster your own passion for language and literature every day, and because, probably most importantly, you love your students. Is that the recipe for the elixir? Certainly, without you, I would not be where I am today. I just wouldn’t. So thank you, a million times.