The bulk of my junior and senior high school years were spent flying under the radar. Quietly sitting in the back of classrooms, getting good-to-average grades, rarely raising my hand, staying out of trouble, with just enough good friends to keep me happy and sane. English and literature and creative writing classes immersed me in my element and helped me navigate my typical teenage angst. They also helped me believe there was one thing I could do well–write.
Mr. Masters was my ninth-grade English teacher. He was also a family friend with charisma to spare. Tall and lanky, always sporting thick, black-rimmed eye glasses and a booming voice that could be heard two classrooms over. He was at once popular and feared for his strict classroom protocol and undeniably passionate about teaching us gawky, floundering teenagers the beauty of writing. He had high expectations of all his students, but delivered his lessons with firm kindness. I loved him as my ninth-grade English teacher and he openly praised my writing.
I was a junior in high school when Mr. Masters and I met up again in his Greek Mythology class. When Mr. Masters learned that I was going to be in his class again, he was thrilled. He often spoke about the “brilliant Jansens” that I was born of, my older siblings leaving a legacy of creativity that suddenly felt more like a curse than a compliment. Not so fast, I thought to myself. How dare he lump me in with my sisters and call me brilliant? Who was he to say who I was? Wanting to be seen as my own, unique person and not just as my sister’s sister, I rebelled.
Greek Mythology left me nothing but flat and confused. Sixteen years old and a bright and voracious reader, I tried reading Homer’s Odyssey and the Iliad and I simply Did. Not. Get. It. Stereotypically adolescent, I immediately deemed it “stupid” and “useless” and gave up. Perfect, I thought. See? Who’s so brilliant now, I smugly asked myself. This was all fitting in perfectly with my Grand Plan. I was determined to fail Greek Mythology. Brilliant Jansen, my ass.
When I bothered to show up to class, I acted apathetic and bored. Mr. Masters had an entire class of juniors to contend with, but I knew my behavior was getting under his skin. This made me even happier. I failed test after test, gave up reading any of the assignments and quietly bided my time in the back of the classroom. The end of the semester drew near and our final assignment from which most of our grade would be computed was an essay. We needed to write an essay on our choice of Greek God. I rolled my eyes and barely contained my disgust. I decided not to do it.
The essay deadline came and went without a paper from me. Mr. Masters noticed this and gave me an extension. The extended deadline came and went and still, no “brilliant Jansen” essay. Obviously exasperated, he asked me to stay after class one day. Sitting knee-to-knee across from one another, he looked me in the eye and asked me what was wrong. “I just don’t like Greek Mythology” I shrugged. “I see,” he countered. “What do you like then?” I began to tell him all about my passion for music, about finding a sense of belonging with the rock n’ roll bands I was hanging out with, about learning how to mix sound and lights for shows. “Okay. Write about that then,” he said. “Tell me, in your words, why you love it so much and what you’re learning. I want to know.”
Mr. Masters had called my bluff and it worked. A few days later, my essay was on his desk. He gave me an “A” on my paper and I (barely) passed the class with a “C-.” It made me mad and frustrated and confused and happy all at once. I had failed miserably at failing Greek Mythology.
Years later, Mr. Masters officiated at my sister’s wedding. After the ceremony he sought me out and asked me, “Are you writing? You need to be writing, you know.” I told him, no, I wasn’t writing, but told him about all the other success I was having, how I was studying television production and looking forward to getting my career started. It was several years after that when I saw him again. I was working at a Seattle television station, I proudly told him and he asked me “But are you able to write?” I sheepishly mentioned a monthly entertainment piece I wrote, edited, and voiced for the station. Mr. Masters nodded, and urged, “Yes, but you need to write more. Tell them you need to write more.”
As I moved on professionally into film and video post production, and then on to having a family and then on to becoming a yoga instructor, Mr. Master’s voice remained annoyingly and persistently present. Occasionally, one of my sisters would report back that she had recently spoken with him. “How is he doing?” I would ask. “Fine,” my sister would reply, and then inevitably, “He wanted to know if you were writing.” Of course he did. Time after time, year after year, without fail. Was I writing? And if I wasn’t, why the hell not?
It takes a village to raise a child, the old African proverb says. Frankly, I’m not convinced it always takes an entire village. Sometimes, I believe all it takes is one, trusted and passionate teacher/coach/mentor who truly sees the potential in an awkward teen, who takes hold of her by the scruff of the neck–like a mama cat with her kitten–and refuses to let go. The very same way Mr. Masters took hold of me way back in that ill-fated Greek Mythology class at Clover Park High School all those many years ago.
And now I know if, by chance, he asks again “Are you writing?” I can smile at him and proudly say “Yes. Thanks to you. I am finally writing.”