A few weeks ago, I was working at the local Farmers’ Market and I ran in to the parents of an old student. We smiled and hugged and I immediately asked after Lilly. Her mother, a slight and more animated version of her daughter, said that Lilly was doing well – thriving in college and that she was happily writing and running. She told me that I was the bright spot in Lilly’s time in Middle School.
That was a surprise. That I was a bright spot for her at such an important time in development was flattering; but, it also made me so sad for her in that lonely time of change.
Lilly was the type of 8th grader who still brought her stuffed animals to school. She came to homeroom frequently on Mondays with a new creature she had crocheted and stitched together over the weekend. She may have weighed 80 pounds and while usually taciturn, would occasionally let an Anne of Green Gables whimsical wish escaped her mouth – and only in a whisper. She had friends, but seemed more comfortable talking with her teachers, other adults, or with her animals during homeroom and recess.
To hear that she was thriving was not a surprise; she’d grown in to herself and we knew she would. I remember reading her short stories back then and marveling at her imagination cast in a signature, loopy scrawl. I felt relieved and excited to think of her in college in the Catskills, in English class and with a notebook scribbling away each night. I thought of her too huddled around a klatch of other aspiring writers and baring her new creations out into her trusted artistic community.
At the market, I wasn’t selling fruit or vegetables. I was writing poems on an old Royal typewriter for anyone who wanted one as they shopped. It’s a weekly job that I’ve taken on, and is rejuvenating time for me as a writer – outside of the classroom. People often request disparate and odd things which they want a poem about: crypt keepers, birthdays, dragons, and feminist heroines of the Spanish Civil War. But, Lilly was familiar, and she has a story. I knew when talking to Lilly’s mom, that then and there, I had to write a poem for Lilly.
I typed out a poem and got her address from her mother. It was a cathartic act for me – a thank you for spending time learning with me, a thank you to Lilly for being who she was and for becoming who she is. I sent it off to her as a simple typed sheet of paper, with no other note.
And then, yesterday, a letter arrived in the post- addressed to Miss Moncrief. I recognized the writing but had no idea who it was from. I saw the return address and really, my heart leapt. Inside was a strip of paper with a typed poem on it, and nothing more.
And that the poem brought me to tears, is why I teach. That the letter was a communication in the language we studied together seven years ago, is why I teach. That Lilly made the effort, that Lilly knew she could trust me to receive her creation and smile in gratitude, is why I teach. Of course, there are so many other reasons why I have chosen to teach. Certainly not all student stories are this reciprocal and successful. But the small correspondence of art and the pleasure in it is enough to keep me going.
She must know that I will write her back, as a challenge and affirmation. She knows that I am here, open to teaching and learning from my students for all of our lives- what a tremendous validation and motivation for the start of this academic year. And to know that Lilly is out there, writing her poems and running through the woods as the world and its wonder and words open up around her, and that I have some small part in her story, is why I teach.
Alison D. Moncrief Bromage’s poems have appeared in the Paris Review, Denver Quarterly, Barrow Street, Copper Nickle and elsewhere. She’s been a finalist for the Gulf Coast Poetry Prize, “Discovery”/Boston Review Poetry Contest and a Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowship. She was the recipient of a Rowland Fellowship for her work with Vermont Adult Learning high school students in Addison County. She now lives in Branford, CT with her husband and young daughter and is a writing tutor at Yale University.
This is a chapter from Alison’s story. Tell us yours.