pay now or pay a lot more later

21 Aug

As my partner is a teacher, I know a lot of teachers. Most are acquaintances, some are family and some are good friends, but all — and I do mean all, regardless of experience or age or interest — could learn many things from this woman:

Jane Schaffer was my English teacher. Is, if you didn’t know, kind of THE English teacher. She has legitimized my lazy ass to professors. She has given me something to talk about with educators. She has developed a writing program so genius that a Google search of her name will yield, among other things, lots and lots of bitching and teenagers’ fervent demands such as, “WHO IS THIS JANE SCHAFFER, ANYWAY?!”
She is also about to die from an inoperable brain tumor.
The injustice of this situation is monumental.
Ms. Schaffer terrified me. Her corrections were blunt and her criticisms biting. Her tolerance for the half-assed, the rude or foolish, the less-than-best was nil. She and I played chicken for nearly a year — me phoning it in and her handing back Ds — until finally I gave in, did my best, and she won. When she returned my first A paper, she asked me to stay after class and scolded me for wasting her time in the past. From that point forward, and to this day, she has been my audience. If it doesn’t pass her muster in my mind, it doesn’t go on the page, on the screen, to the printer, to the publisher. Period. She is my Jiminy Cricket in high top Doc Martens, writing a big red “DUH” next to anything less than insightful, a “What’s your point?” when I fall off the rails. Jane forced me, and all of her students, to be the most authentic version of ourselves. Poses and affectations abounding during adolescence were seen through in short order, exposed and undone to your betterment or humiliation — she didn’t seem to mind which. If only all, or even a portion of high school teachers could cut through the bullshit so effectively. Her classroom was safe. It was smart and she was smart; her disapprovals were plain and her approval sincere, fact-based. I never questioned her praise because I never questioned her (very, very… very liberal) panning.
When I graduated from high school, she took me by the shoulders and insisted, “You are a writer. WRITE.” This, said so matter-of-factly, is at the top of my life’s list of affirmations. One of the kindest things ever said to me.
Several years after high school, when she and I had had no contact save a few, brief chance meetings at the airport, my ex-father-in-law attended one of her workshops. I came up in conversation and she sent him home with regards, told him I was one of her most talented former students. Years passed again and we found each other on Facebook. We exchanged weeks’ worth of emails wherein she berated me for a few life choices and asked why she hadn’t seen my name on the NY Times Bestseller List before she told me about her deteriorating health. She may as well have punched me in the stomach. Repeatedly. I told her that death was simply not an option. Unfortunately, it seems that she didn’t listen.

So, Ms. S., Jane, as you insisted I call you, there you are as old as I was when we met. To imagine you unconscious, sapped of your snappiness, your vim, your immense intelligence crowded by sick is just too unpleasant. Here’s to your stories of sex after 50, to making a name for yourself, to unsolicited but necessary advice, to being so fucking real. To sayings like “pay now or pay a lot more later” and “it will be revealed.” Your run hasn’t been long enough, but it’s certainly been good and I hope you know how dearly I love you.

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2 Responses to “pay now or pay a lot more later”

  1. Dr. Tom Bibey August 22, 2010 at 8:01 am #

    When I read this I felt your pain, and I applaud your passion. Every good person who ever lived deserves some kind of permanent documentation of at least a small part of their mission. I am glad you wrote of her.

    I had a chemistry teacher who was like that for me. Before I ran into him, I was just a dumb testosterone poisioned boy who was only interested in girls, guitars, and golf. I became a doctor, and it would have never happened without him. I tell him so every time I see him.

    Dr. B

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