There are certain people that come into your life at crucial moments and shape a part of you.
They smooth out a rough edge, or they shave off a section of your heart and cut another facet into your soul. They shape you. Some people add parts to you that you never knew you were missing, or cause you to grow a prickly coating to protect yourself from future encounters with nefarious people. People add and subtract from you as you go, making you more than or lesser than you were before coming into contact with them.
I went to the same school from the age of 4 to the age of 18. Junior school was one thing, but when I stepped into senior school I was 70% hormones and 30% terrified child. I wasn’t a particularly bad student, but I wasn’t a particularly good one either. I often said or did things that would get me into trouble… or at least, the sort of tame, mouthy things that get you into trouble in expensive private schools. I was late with my homework. I drew on my tests. I daydreamed, I sent notes in class, I got caught skipping P.E. I put no effort into anything, because I was afraid of trying hard and failing. It was easier and less embarrassing to not even bother; at least then the disappointment was purposeful.
There was one class in which I excelled however, and that was English.
My English teacher was not well liked. She never laughed with us. She didn’t drop by at lunch. She didn’t talk about her personal life. Her sense of humour was incredibly dry. Her comments were blunt and unadorned, and her criticism was often harsh and cutting. She demanded a lot from her students. Sometimes she demanded too much. Her punishments were always slightly more severe than those of the other teachers, and she was rarely lenient. She would give you a grade lower than what you felt you deserved, and then claim it was so that you always had something left to strive for.
Of all the teachers at my school, of all the years that I walked in and out those doors, she was the only teacher that I felt ever really saw me.
I suppose the most likely reason for this is that I used my English homework as my emotional safety net. I would funnel myself and my heightened emotions into impassioned railings against the hopeless stupidity of Juliet or the bigoted hatred of Bob Ewell. I suspect that a lot of the time my homework gave more of an insight into my own feelings than those of the characters I was supposed to be critiquing.
Having said that, I never in my life mentioned anything personal. At school I was a happy-go-lucky, fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants kind of girl who never had anything ready or prepared and didn’t care. So I didn’t have my books. So? So I didn’t have my homework done. And? It was fine. I’d be fine. I was always fine!
The truth is I was struggling. I’d been struggling for a long time.
I remember one particular moment that knocked me off balance.
I had been getting in more trouble than usual. In our school, for every infraction you would get a “slip,” and once you reached three slips in a single semester, you were “on report.” Being on report essentially meant that for one week you had to get signed off by every teacher after every class, and at the end of each day your parents had to sign off to say they had seen the teachers’ notes and all the homework was done.
I wasn’t even halfway through the semester and I had accumulated seven slips.
Somehow this had escaped everyone’s notice until one day my English teacher asked if she could speak to me outside. In the middle of classtime, she pulled me out to the landing on the first floor and folded her arms.
“What is going on with you?”
I chewed the inside of my cheek and scuffed the toe of my chunky black shoe against the tile. I wasn’t sure what this was about but I knew it wasn’t good. I stayed silent.
“Quinn, you and I both know that you have seven slips at the moment.”
After a long pause, I nodded. I knew what was coming. I was going on report.
At the thought of this I started to feel a familiar panic course through me. I felt like my veins were on fire. I didn’t care about stupid pieces of paper, or having teachers sign me off. What I cared about – what terrified me – was the idea of my mother knowing. It’s hard to explain in isolation, but suffice to say I started to have a full-blown panic attack right there on the landing. I felt my eyes widen, and even though I shrugged and tucked my chin under so she couldn’t see my face, I couldn’t stop tears from just leaking out onto my cheeks. They streamed down and dripped from my jawline. As if removed from myself, I watched them splash against the tiles. I was numb. There was a ringing in my ears and I just wanted to leave, to hide in a bathroom cubicle and sink through the floor until I disappeared into nothingness.
My English teacher stood watching me for a moment, her arms still crossed.
“Okay.” She said.
I couldn’t speak because I felt as if I had swallowed my tongue. I was shivering so violently I figured she must notice, so I pulled my sleeves over my trembling fingers. I couldn’t think of anything to say because my mind had become a dense fog of fear. A small part of me somehow retained the ability to feel shame, and I did. I felt a red hot trickle of shame at what she must think of me, this overreacting, overly dramatic problem student who was having a nervous breakdown in the middle of the day over a few signatures.
“Okay.” She said again.
There was another pause as she contemplated me, and then she moved to stand right in front of me. I watched her shoes stop in front of me.
“Look at me, Quinn. Look at me.”
I swiped at my eyes with my sleeve and reluctantly lifted my gaze.
“We both know you have seven slips at the moment-“
I was trying so hard to stem the tears that they pooled, turning her into a blurry collection of colours in front of me.
“Quinn. Listen to me. You have seven slips and you should be have already been on report not once, but twice. I should call your parents myself-“
I lost the battle and another wave of teardrops raced for the floor.
“But I know…” Her voice softened a bit. The most I’d ever heard in her years teaching me.
“I know that you don’t want me to do that. Am I right?”
My gaze dropped back to the floor as I nodded vigorously and gulped for air. Was I going to have to explain? Was she going to ask? Could she tell? What did she know?
“You don’t want me to tell your parents.”
I took long, juddering breaths and tracked the lines of grout between the tiles.
“Quinn, listen to me. This is what I’m going to do. I’m going to strike five of your slips from your record.”
I barely heard her I was so deep in my state of panic. She paused long enough for the words to sink in, and I slowly raised my head to look at her in disbelief.
“Yes. Look. You’re not trying. I know you and you can do better. You have to try, Quinn, and not just in my class. In all of your classes. To be clear, I’m not wiping your slate clean; I’m simply giving you a second chance. I am leaving two slips on your record, so if you get another this semester, you will go on report. Is that clear?”
“Alright.” She sighed, her arms still folded. “You’re excused, Quinn.”
I tugged at the sleeves of my jumper, still wordless, completely unable to believe that I had just received a stay of execution. Before she could change her mind, I went to duck past her into the corridor. She grabbed my elbow as I passed.
“I’ll be keeping an eye on you. Don’t let me down.”
I made a beeline for the bathroom where I locked myself in a cubicle, wrapped my hands like a boxer (if boxers used tissue paper) and silently cried my heart out, partly to release all the pent-up energy and partly from relief.
Ten minutes later I had splashed water on my face and managed to get my heart rate down. I returned to class with puffy eyes, and when I walked in my English teacher turned and looked at me as if the past twenty minutes had never happened.
“Back to your seat, Quinn,” She growled.
I somehow managed to avoid another slip that semester. I dodged that bullet. I tried harder, although not always as hard as I might have. I always tried my hardest in her class though, and she always kept an eye on me like she’d promised.
Once, before we reaching the Hamlet years, she stopped at my desk on her way into the classroom. I had my head bowed low over a book, and daisies I had picked at lunchtime were strewn across my desk.
“Sometimes you remind me so much of Ophelia,” she told me.
I asked her who that was, and she told me it was a Shakespearian character. I shrugged and went back to my book, but later I looked it up, and when I did and found a fragile girl who drowns herself in a lake, I was offended.
Now with the benefit of hindsight, I see it differently.
I was pretty fragile. I thought I was tough, but the truth is that I was brittle like porcelain and completely unaware of it.
I think of her often.
In the mathematics of my life, she added a lot. She made me more.
DEPRESSING POSTSCRIPT: A couple of years after finishing school, I went back to tell her all of this. She was out sick, and I was going abroad, so I decided I would write a letter. I thought I might return again after my trip away and if she was still out, I could at least drop it off for her.
A few weeks later, as I put the pen down on the seventh page of the long-winded novel of gratitude I had found myself writing, I got a message from my best friend to tell me my English teacher had been found dead.
I went to her funeral. I cried like she was my own blood.
She taught me one last painful lesson:
Don’t wait until it’s too late to say the things that matter.