I covered a wall in Judy Blume last week. Covered, top to bottom.
I’ve been working from home as a full-time freelance writer for five months now, and as sublime as days spent on the couch can sound when you’re daydreaming about them from an office, once you actually start living the dream, things change. Days blend into nights. There’s no separation between work and non-work. You start having in-depth, two-way conversations with the dog. All that structure you rallied so hard against and swore you’d never return to starts to actually make sense, and not only do you acknowledge its legitimacy, but despite all your freedom, you even begin to crave it. I’m pretty sure it’s the primary reason (among many) that coworking spaces now exist — to save us from ourselves.
So, I decided to convert my dining room into an office. It’s at the farthest point of my apartment from the space where I spend most of my time, so there’s some sense of a border between the two. I’ve been writing so many pieces on home decor and design over the past few months that I’m spoiled for choice when it comes to inspiration, which is why it’s kind of hilarious that, after sifting through an all-you-can-eat smorgasboard of breathtaking ideas, I landed squarely on something straight out of elementary school:
A big black chalkboard and Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing.
I’ve loved the idea of chalkboard paint ever since I first learned of its existence, and I’ve loved Judy Blume since I was a little kid. In fact, reading my first two Judy Blume books in Ms. Shirkey’s fourth grade gifted class was what made me want to be a writer to begin with. The dotted lines weren’t hard to draw. “She’s a girl… I’m a girl,” I thought. “Her name’s Judy… my mom’s name is Judy. I love writing… my teachers keep telling me I’m good at it. I wonder if I could do it for a living when I grow up.” So I spent several hours last week covering an accent wall with chalkboard paint and several more scrawling the first chapter of Judy Blume’s first book (or the first one I knew of hers, anyway) from ceiling to floor in chalk marker. And without my even planning it, it fit perfectly.
As I was transcribing the words onto the wall, I started thinking about all my influences from when I was young, and everything somehow tied itself back to a teacher. Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I should admit something: we’ve all heard the term “PK,” short for “preacher’s kid,” and I’ll readily share the fact that I’m a TK, which is probably similar. My mom taught kindergarten, second and third grade for about a decade apiece, and although she was never my teacher, some of her friends were, and I got to know them over the years as people, not just “Mrs. So and So from Classroom 4B.” As a result, the phrase “those who can’t, teach” has always made me laugh, because I know anyone idiotic enough to utter those words has clearly never tried.
I have to wonder what some of my favorite teachers are doing now, or if they’re even still with us. I hope, of course, that they’re all healthy, happy and retired — or close to retired, anyway — and getting some much-deserved rest from all of us snot-nosed brats. They’re probably not chilling out at all, though, if they’re anything like my mother, who kept volunteering at her old school well after she was off the books, no matter how much we begged her to just take a load off for once in her life. But she wasn’t having it; it was in her blood, just like it was for Mrs. Steinman, for whom only the act of teaching me cursive could pull me out of the coma of a crush I was in over Christopher Hutchins, the skinny little green-eyed boy I spent the entire third grade obsessing over at Hogan Spring Glen Elementary. Then there was sweet Mr. Gunter, who patiently stayed after school to help several classmates and myself with our long division even though we were all pretty much hopeless. He was tireless and kind. He gave me my first C, but we all know whose fault that was.
I’ll never forget the lilting Southern accent, perfect dresses and love of classic literature Ms. Belote bestowed on all of us in the seventh grade at Hendricks Day School — nor will I forget the fact that one day in 1988 I took one look at her ice blue 300ZX and thought, “Oh man, English teachers are cool… I’ve got to be one someday.” Because of that woman, I actually thought diagramming sentences was a fun thing to do, and I still dissect language in my head that way sometimes.
Senora Tyler taught English and Spanish in eight and ninth grade and scared the living hell out of me, but in doing so, she instilled a sense of grammatical discipline in me that no other teacher ever quite matched, while the beautifully rebellious Ms. J. — my junior year creative writing teacher — made sure I understood the importance of questioning authority and the brilliance of making the choice to break select rules once they’d all been mastered. Those two women in particular still swirl around in my head from time to time when I’m writing. But obviously, as amazing as they all were, none of them made nearly as much of an impact on me as the one whose class I never once attended — Mrs. Lynch.
Now, back to the first chapter of Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing: it’s about a nine-year-old boy bringing home a turtle he won at a birthday party and his mom’s reaction to the unexpected — and smelly — new pet. Thanks to that fact, I looked up at the blackboard in front of my new desk the other day and realized I now sit eye level every single day with the words “my mother said.” Those words are staring straight at me while I work each day to achieve something she encouraged me to chase from the day I told her it was what I wanted until the day she took her last breath. To call it mere coincidence would be a smidge naive.
She’s been gone for six years now, but somehow, but she’s still teaching me things. Just like all the good ones do.