The Treasures of Spring Cleaning: Tell Them What They Mean to You

The arrival of spring reliably brings with it the urge to clean up, throw things out, and bring order to the accumulated dust and detritus of indoor living. The urge comes to me in unpredictable waves and must be acted upon immediately before it vanishes. I begin to see overlooked countertops piled high with old newspapers and unread mail, stacks of books on the floor that need to be reshelved, aspirational clothes that haven’t been worn for years bloating my closet. The state of mind required to take care of such disorder is fragile and ephemeral. I can sustain it for a couple of hours, maybe half a day. Then the urgency fades and the seeking of order seems trivial again.

This spring I find myself scouring my brain too, excavating long-forgotten memories of things I’ve done and the people I’ve done them with, thoughts of the people I’ve loved but haven’t seen for years, amusement at the idiosyncrasies of my family. Some of this revisiting may be due to my illness, but I think it’s a good project to always include in the spring cleaning ritual. A few days ago I found myself making a list of all my teachers from elementary school, junior high and high school. And college too. They flocked around me like choral members singing quietly in my ear.

I was always fascinated by my teachers; they loomed large in my consciousness, even the ones I wasn’t fond of, and I remember most of their names. Those early teachers who taught me when my mind was plastic, made the most indelible impressions.

From the elementary school years my fourth grade teacher Mr. Vogel stands out. He had us write “daily compositions” about anything we wanted — sometimes he gave us a photograph as a prompt. He always commented on what we had written but he never graded it. There was a freedom in that unjudged activity that no other teacher had offered, and I looked forward to those daily writing sessions and began to take pride in my work. He implanted the idea that writing could become a habit, and I’m quite sure that made it easier for me to later make it so. When my first novel came out it was astonishing to win an Oregon Book Award alongside Mr. Vogel’s daughter, Heather Vogel Frederick. We had both grown up in Massachusetts and been influenced by her father. What are the odds that we would find ourselves side by side years later on an Oregon stage?

Jump to seventh grade English class with Mrs. Mahoney. I’m certain I’m not the only one who would cite Mrs. Mahoney as a stellar teacher. She was riveting for her passion. She pranced around the classroom gesturing and reciting lines from Shakespeare. It was apparent that she adored literature and theater. She had been an actress earlier in her life and loved recounting the story of how, after her appendix ruptured on stage, she carried on until the play was over. The most extreme demonstration of the show must go on. She introduced us to Shakespeare and was the only teacher who required us to memorize. We committed to memory the Quality of Mercy speech from The Merchant of Venice and all the prepositions, five each week. I can still recite both of those. She also gave us ten weekly vocabulary words on which we were tested. I’ll never forget exactly which words I learned in her class: beneficent, benevolent, parsimonious, ignominy, come to mind. I wish she could have known, when she was alive, how she lives on in my life and probably in many of her other students’ lives as well.

High school, unfortunately, did not provide a bounty of exceptional teachers. Some good ones, and most of them memorable, but none that I remember as truly illuminating. But college delivered. Early on I took a class called “Play Analysis,” taught by English Professor and playwright David Cole, a quiet, brilliant, Harvard-trained intellectual who read more deeply and listened more closely than anyone I’ve ever known. We have remained dear friends, and he often quotes back to me things I said as a twenty-something, things I have no recollection of saying. In that class he wanted to impress upon us how the text of a play is affected in production by the physical location in which it is produced. Some students from the class performed a scene from Waiting for Godot in a variety of different locations, including a tunnel and an open field. We discussed how the atomosphere of those places — claustrophobic, exposed, etc. — framed how the performance was viewed and interpreted. He urged us outside the proverbial box to consider the least obvious questions. Should he read this post I’m sure he will recall that class differently and more accurately than I do, but nonetheless, it left a lasting impression, changing my view of things far beyond the theater.

Another stellar teacher at college was Seymour Saracen, an esteemed Professor of Psychology focusing on “community psychology” which was a new field at the time, and he was at its forefront. Our subject in his seminar was to think about how we take for granted so much about the structures of organizations, which often give rise to a multitude of problems that could be solved by addressing structural changes. In one class, to shake up our thinking, he asked us to consider how the five-day work week might be restructured more effectively. What might function better than five days on and two days off? A simple question, but to a twenty-year-old who had always understood the work week to be immutable, it was a radical new way to think.

Then there was Adrienne Kennedy, a Visiting Professor who taught playwriting. She had established her reputation as a groundbreaking playwright with her play Funnyhouse of a Negro. She was an exceptionally timid wisp of a woman, and I remember a few times when we were walking around campus together she ducked behind a post to avoid talking to someone approaching. She noticed me and liked my work and helped me to get my plays to people in New York where I had some staged readings and Off-off Broadway productions. There was something about her very being and the way she navigated the world — both strong and vulnerable, and determined to write — that touched me deeply and gave me permission to write what I wanted and be myself in doing so. She and I are still in touch and very fond of one another.

There are two other writing teachers whose impact has been lasting and important though my interaction with them was brief. One is Susan Trott, author of numerous books, most recently The Holy Woman. She is not a household name, and I don’t believe she has aspired to be. What she said in a workshop at the Community of Writers summer conference was something I have taken to heart. “I am a happy writer,” she proclaimed. She wanted us to know that one need not be tortured to be a writer, nor did one have to seek and find fame. She had a way of cocking her head, wrinkling her eyes, and smiling at a person as if she saw straight to their soul.

I was in a ten-day workshop at the Sewanee Writers Conference under the tutelage of Alice McDermott and Tony Earley. Alice has written a number of novels that have spoken to me deeply (her most recent novel is The Ninth Hour). And I admire Tony’s work too (his most recent book is a story collection called Mr. Tall). Tony talked about “The Thing and The Other Thing,” an idea I have used extensively in my own work and have brought into my own writing classes (perhaps I’ll address this in a later posting). Both of them were terrific, but it was Alice whose presence has lived on in me. She said a number of smart things about writing that I don’t recall. What remains with me is the wisdom she exuded, a composure that seemed almost saintly. She is a practicing Catholic and — I know from what she said in that seminar as well as from what I have read — committed to being a good person in the world, as well as in her writing. Writing, to her, and as I have come to also believe, is a calling that carries with it a strong underlying moral component.

My spring inventory has told me that good teachers are not all the same. Some offer magnetic excitement and passion about their subject matter (Mrs. Mahoney). Some probe the subject matter with such uncanny depth that they offer their students a new way of seeing things (David Cole and Seymour Saracen). Some are exceptionally astute in recognizing the needs and gifts of their students (Adrienne Kennedy and David Cole). Some set an inspirational example by initiating a practice (Mr. Vogel), or by simply being themselves (Susan Trott, Alice McDermott and Adrienne Kennedy). Some say something unforgettable that becomes an important reminder in the years that follow (Susan Trott and Tony Earley). There are, I’m sure, other qualities that make for spectacular teachers, but these are the ones that have stood out to me.

I must correct something I said earlier that might have been misunderstood. In spring cleaning my mind I am not expunging these teachers from my brain. On the contrary, I want to sing their names and praises from the rooftops. I want everyone to know how brilliant and empathetic and inspiring they have been. How they have changed me in lasting ways. Teaching is such a delicate and difficult balance between imparting knowledge and honoring human relationships. It can be a thankless, poorly rewarded occupation. These teachers, and all others like them, should know how powerfully they live on in our psyches, how they help us to steer our paths and continually recommit to our callings. Touching other human beings in this profound way is crucial for changing the world. (And, god knows, we know that needs to happen!)

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Cai Emmons is the author of 5 books of fiction, most recently the novel, SINKING ISLANDS. Two more of her novels will be published in 2022.

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Cai Emmons

Cai Emmons

Cai Emmons is the author of 5 books of fiction, most recently the novel, SINKING ISLANDS. Two more of her novels will be published in 2022.

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