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Published: Mon Jul 1 2019
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, Destrución de los Huricanes en Guatemala / Hurricane Destruction in Guatemala (detail), 2010, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.
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Homage to Former Teachers

Mrs. L, second grade

Mrs. L kept a typewriter in the corner of the classroom. A typewriter for us, she explained, to use whenever we wished. For whatever we wanted to write. Letters, stories, poems, lists, thoughts, or even just words. Sometimes it’s fun just to write words, Mrs. L said. She smiled when she said this. The typewriter—a manual typewriter, I know now, but didn’t then—was thirty years out of date, a hand-me-down or thrift-store find. A black Royal with round keys that required us to press as hard as our seven-year-old fingers could, fingers that hitherto had only squeezed video game joysticks and pushed reluctant buttons through the narrow apertures of church jackets. The pleasure of scrolling a piece of paper into the carriage. Typing a line, and then having to hit the carriage back—thwack! The sound of that. Someone looking over your shoulder, eager to see what you were writing. Wanting the other person to read what you’d written, yet not wanting them to. The first time, feeling that.

Mrs. J, third grade

On writing days, Mrs. J would allow us to select one magic item from a plastic treasure chest she kept in the back of the classroom. The treasure chest was freckled with diamonds and rubies, also plastic, like the flimsy lock and key. Inside: a ruby ring, a feather, a scroll, a seashell, a necklace, a golden leaf, an inkwell, a glass paperweight with a baby seahorse strangely encased within it. “These are magical items,” Mrs. J explained, “to give you magical powers when you write.” Choosing was difficult, unless you were toward the end of the alphabet as I was. The scroll was the least popular item, which only served to enlist my affection for it all the more. A piece of red yarn held it together. Unfurled, the scroll was revealed to have an encouraging message written in calligraphy: Use this on your writing journey. Someone had blackened the edges of the scroll with a lighter or, as I imagined it then, a pirate’s torch.

Mrs. D, librarian, fourth grade

On library days, Mrs. D would instruct us to gather in a circle in front of her desk. There she would read to us from one of the library’s new releases, some mystery or fantasy or young adult novel. That we were a little too old for story-time escaped Mrs. D’s notice; she loved reading aloud. She was good at it. Especially dialogue, which required her to adopt different voices and then remember those voices as the story developed. Still, we made fun of her, later, at lunch. We imitated the way Mrs. D read aloud. We tried to make our voices sound the way Mrs. D made her voice sound when she read the dialogue. It was fun, trying to do that. Our secret: it thrilled us to feel the dialogue on our tongues. A first taste of language as pleasure, entertainment. Wanting to engage a listener. Wanting them to hang on our every word.

Brother J, seventh grade

In Brother J’s religion class, we had to keep a journal, to record, he said, our thoughts and spiritual reflections. Our journals: spiral notebooks festooned with stickers, doodles, band logos, the Stones’ lips and tongue, Led Zeppelin’s cryptic insignia. We carried the journals home on weekends, neglected to write anything in them. Sometimes weeks passed with no thoughts or reflections. “I will be collecting your journals at the end of the semester,” Brother J said, “so please make sure they are up to date.” He gave us a knowing look. Up to date: we invented thoughts; we fabricated reflections. We filled in blank days and weeks with sudden memories, observations. A realization: it’s fun to remember things you can’t quite actually remember, and then write them down as if you did.

Ms. K, tenth grade

Ms. K was our English teacher. She was there, ostensibly, to instruct us in sentence-diagramming, grammar, punctuation, and the block-paragraph business letter, but more often she read aloud her original poems and asked us for feedback. “What do you think?” she’d say after reading another. Most of her poems were about motherhood. Ms. K had a young daughter, whom she sometimes brought to class, and whom she allowed to draw on the chalkboard in the middle of class while we were pretending to diagram sentences. We didn’t know how to respond. What did we know about poems, about motherhood? “I’m still looking for a title. Sometimes I have a hard time figuring out what to name them.” We raised our hands. We offered suggestions. “These are all good ideas.” She would reach for a piece of chalk. “I’d better write them down.” I raised my hand. Ms. K called on me, and I listened to hear whatever it was I was about to say.

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Anthony Varallo is the author of a novel, The Lines (University of Iowa Press, forthcoming 2019), as well as four story collections: Everyone Was There (Elixir Press, 2017), winner of the Elixir Press Fiction Award; Think of Me and I’ll Know (Northwestern University Press/TriQuarterly Books, 2013); Out Loud (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2008), winner of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize; and This Day in History (University of Iowa Press, 2005), winner of the John Simmons Short Fiction Award. He teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at the College of Charleston (in Charleston, South Carolina), where he serves as fiction editor of Crazyhorse. (updated 7/2019)

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