I wasn’t a great student. Math was traumatic. Science was a wash. History was passable. Even English was dicey. I wasn’t good at reading for comprehension and just skirted by the year we spent on grammar. I always gave it a good try, but I was never going to be a star student. Except when it came to “creative” writing, the broad umbrella term for “stories you make up in order to speak the truths you’re not yet comfortable saying aloud.”
I have always loved telling stories, finding new (and often funny) ways to describe people and places and mundane events. Unfortunately, this wasn’t a regular part of my town’s core curriculum, my storytelling skills were not called on and rarely did anyone take my poems seriously (They were right to do this. They were insufferable. But only I can say that, now.). That is until senior year of high school, when my heart and brain exploded and I finally got to take an entire creative writing course, dedicated to all the silly, stupid, weirdo, embarrassing, emotional, angsty, sad, pretty things I wanted to write about.
My teacher was the best. She was warm and friendly and honest. She knew a large portion of the students were taking the class because it was an “easy” elective, but she still encouraged them to break out of their comfort zone and surprise themselves. More and most importantly, she was the first teacher that told me my writing was funny.
This was major on many levels. I had such low confidence, not just in my academics, but in me, as a person, who wanted to have a voice, who maybe had something to say, but who thought I wasn’t good enough to be listened to. But then my teacher said, no, you are funny, and you should keep writing. Miraculously I believed her and I continued to put my feelings into words. In college and after, I found professors, mentors and bosses, that championed me and my work, but she was the one that got the ball rolling. So I am still doing this now because of her. I owe her a lot.
Sometime in the year she gave everyone this poem by Margaret Atwood. I’ve had it now for 13 years, it’s wedged between the pages of a photo album. I had it up on my bedroom wall and carried it through college, Chicago and now in Brooklyn. It’s a moving meditation about the difficulty and beauty of the world. It still holds up.
My teacher died suddenly yesterday and, like so many times in the past 13 years, I returned to the poem. I’m devastated by her loss, and I cry for her family, her current students and all the future generations that will never know her warmth and encouragement. I’m having trouble finding any comfort but if there is any light, it’s this poem which I will always treasure and will always make me think of Mrs. Yamamoto.
By Margaret Atwood
You begin this way
This is your hand
This is your eye
That is a fish, blue and flat
On the paper, almost
The shape of an eye.
This is your mouth, this is an O
Or a moon, whichever
You like. This is yellow.
Outside the window
Is the rain, green
Because it’s summer, and beyond that
The trees and then the world,
Which is round and has only
The colours of these nine crayons.
This is the world, which is fuller
And more difficult to learn than I have said.
You are right to smudge it that way
With the red and then
The orange: the world burns.
Once you have learned these words
You will learn that there are more
Words than you can ever learn.
The word hand floats above your hand
Like a small cloud over a lake.
The word hand anchors
Your hand to this table,
Your hand is a warm stone
I hold between two words.
This is your hand, these are my hands, this is the world,
Which is round but not flat and has more colours
Than we can see.
It begins, it has an end,
This is what you will
Come back to, this is your hand.