I love to tell stories, especially in writing, and if I can use the responses from the stuff I’ve created as a gauge, I’d say I’m pretty darn good at it. I’m not tooting my own horn here. All a writer has to go by is audience response, but there might not have been a response to give if it hadn’t been for one woman - my eighth grade English teacher, Mrs. Thornton. I’d like to thank her for the way she encouraged me, but I can’t. She’s not with us anymore and I waited too late to tell her just how much her hard-nosed approach made a difference in my life.
I’m Michael Blackston and this is an important part of my Funny Messy Life.
I wasn’t a great student. I wasn’t even a good student, but I had something most prepubescent boys care nothing about. Potential.
My mother was an elementary school teacher for most of her working life and so in the small, southern town I grew up in, all the other teachers knew me. I was Brenda’s son - the one whose summer breaks were cut short because I was made to go a week early and help mom at the beginning of the year to get her room ready during pre-planning and at the end of the year to clean up during post-planning. I was always made to help the other teachers too, by doing things like pushing loads of textbooks back to their storage places on those carts that had two levels and always had one wheel that just spun around like your messed up buddy sometimes randomly did when he was on a sugar high, and all the time the other wheels did their jobs.
By the time I got to the eighth grade, most of the teachers in the school system knew Brenda’s boy and I got used to that. I had a deeper relationship with them because I helped them and I think they had a little sympathy for me because while the other kids were starting their summer breaks or getting in their last week of it, I was pushing that stupid cart around the empty halls of the elementary school, weaving that huge thing around with my tiny seven year old body like I’d had too much to drink the night before, and all because of that one rogue wheel.
I used the fact that they all liked me to my advantage and because mom was a single mother with stacks of papers to grade every night and couldn’t stay on top of me and my homework, I got into the habit of being what we in America call, A Dang Slacker. And I got away with it for a while. I sort of feel like I got a little extra consideration at times for being Brenda’s Boy. That was, until eighth grade, when I was assigned to Mrs. Thornton’s English class. She wasn’t mean; she wasn’t unreasonable. She just expected the best out of her students and would accept nothing less. She was a strong black woman who commanded the room. When she spoke, it was with confidence and articulation. She intimidated me.
Mrs. Thornton knew that if you allow children to function at their lowest level, they’ll grow up to function at their lowest level. If my mind wandered in class, she’d call me out. If I was bored and just stopped paying attention, she’d call me out. I couldn’t stand the woman.
I’m sure I had hurtful names for her and said things behind her back to my friends that made me feel good at the time, while she stood by, fully aware that I was doing it, and she wouldn’t give one, as we say here in the good ol’ U.S. or A., Tee-Total Rip.
Because she cared a lot about us. She wanted the best for her students, no matter what it took and no matter what we thought about her. We were children and in the long run, there might be one or two of us who realized how much she did care and would appreciate it. I wish I could tell her that I’m one of those kids, but I can’t. I waited too late.
Despite Mrs. Thornton’s and my mom’s best efforts, my eighth grade year was mostly an exercise in me being what we red blooded, southern Americans call, a Jim-Flammin’ Iggit. By the end of the year, I had nearly failing scores in all of my classes except for Chorus. My Math and English scores were failing, but I had one last hope of bringing my grade up enough to pass in Mrs. Thornton’s class. She was waiting on a term paper she said I hadn’t turned in. I actually thought I had turned it in, but it was nowhere to be found and she informed me that if she didn’t get it by the deadline, my English grade would be posted below 70. We could fail one class and still advance to the next grade, but failing two would hold me back to repeat the eighth grade.
There was no way I was going to get my math grade up. They might still be showing that grade to curious gawkers for a quarter apiece at fairs. But I dug in my heels about the term paper. I told her I had turned it in and she told me I had not. If you’re familiar with the attitude of what we Yankee Doodles Dandies call, The Male Eighth Grader, you know they’re stubborn and I wasn’t an exception.
I didn’t do the paper and I had three reasons: #1. I was a male eighth grader and I knew everything, #2. I was a male eighth grader and I was lazy, and #3. I fully expected to get that Brenda’s Boy credit.
When the report cards came out, I opened mine up, already planning my crazy escapades of the summer, and I started to cry. There were all of my scores - Chorus was a bold, high A, Math was failing and I knew it would be, all the others but one were passing. Barely, but passing. All but one. English. It was a failing grade, just as I had been told it would be, and I was figuratively hit in the face with what we around my grandma’s house call, A Big Ol’ Heapin’ of I Told Ya So!
Mama asked me what was wrong, but she already knew. She’d had a conversation with Mrs. Thornton before I got my report card and she was fully aware of everything, including what was to come next.
“I faaaaaiillled! Mama, I have to repeat eighth grade! WAHHHHHH!”
Mama waited for me to calm down and asked if I turned in my term paper like I was supposed to. I told her I had, but Mrs. Thornton lost it. Mama asked if I had rewritten it to make sure Mrs. Thornton got a copy on time and I screamed something to the effect of …
“She hates me and she lost it the first time - probably on purpose - and I turned it in and it’s not fair to make me write a new one because it was her fault and she lost it and she hates me and she’s always been mean to me since the first day of school and I didn’t know why and I’m telling the principle and she’s gonna get fired and … WAAAAAHHHHH!”
Mama calmly explained that Mrs. Thornton wasn’t to blame for any of this. I hadn’t kept up my homework, I hadn’t studied like I was supposed to, so I failed a lot of my tests. I didn’t pay attention in class and if I had done right, I probably would have passed even without turning in the term paper. She reminded me that I’d been warned this would happen and that Mrs. Thornton had been more than fair by even giving me the chance to rewrite it.
After a while, she also told me the plan going forward and I couldn’t believe my ears.
Mrs. Thornton had called mama and told her she’d give me one last chance. I was to come to her classroom during post-planning the next week and rewrite my term paper. She would read it and if I followed the guidelines for the paper, she would give me a grade one point above failing so that I could go to the ninth grade.
I rode my bike from the house to the school the next Monday morning and went to Mrs. Thornton’s class. She was bent over a stack of paperwork she had to complete to start her own summer break and she looked up from that when I walked in.
“Have a seat at your desk, Michael,” she told me and pointed to the spot where I’d slacked off all year long. She brought some paper and a pencil with her, along with a printout of the expected guidelines for the work. “If you’ll focus, it shouldn’t take you long,” she said, clearly disappointed that it had come to this for one of her students. She also knew that I blamed her for losing the paper and to this day, I still think I turned it in.
I started to write, but I couldn’t think. All I could do was dwell on the fact that there were woods to be explored, bikes to be ridden, and games of pretend Rambo to be played. I got madder and madder, until finally I found the courage to just ask Mrs. Thornton right out.
“Why don’t you like me?”
I think it surprised her and she got back up from her desk again to come sit in one of the smaller ones close to mine.
“Why do you think I don’t like you?”
I hadn’t planned the conversation past the initial question, so I stalled for a minute, but eventually came up with something. “You’ve been mean to me all year. Embarrassed me in front of the class, you’re making me do this paper again when I promise I turned it in.”
“Where did you put the first one?”
“I laid it on your desk.”
“Where on my desk?”
“Right in the middle.”
“Mmm hmm,” she mumbled and walked back over to her desk, taking something off it. She brought the thing to me and presented it atop of the paper I was trying to write. “Do you remember when I showed this to the whole class?”
What she had brought over was a tray, labelled boldly on the front. Term Papers. I shook my head that I did not remember.it.
“I showed this tray to the whole class and asked you each to place your papers in it. I said it was very important and that if you didn’t, I might not see it. It may have gotten mixed up with other things on my desk and I may even run across it one day, but you didn’t follow instructions and that’s not my fault, is it?”
I’ve always had a problem paying attention. I was never diagnosed with ADHD, but I imagine if I had ever been tested for it, the results would have been posted right next to my math grade at the carnival. The doctors probably would have said something to my mother like, “Ms. Blackston, we think your son would benefit from medication.” If she asked which medication, they’d reply, “All of them.”
Mrs.Thornton had learned that about me and I think because of it - and a little bit of the Brenda’s Boy thing - she knew I struggled. But the biggest thing was that she believed in me. I realized early in life that I liked to write and some of that made its way out of me over the course of the year. And that’s what she told me.
“Michael, you’re here today getting another chance because I’m impressed by you. You’ve got a real talent for writing and I don’t want to see it go to waste. I’m not going to pass you without you rewriting this paper because I’ve seen what you’re capable of and I want you to see it too. I want you to understand the value of hard work and to reap the rewards only when you’ve completed the task. You’re a good writer and I’ve not been mean to you this year, I’ve been tough because I see something in you. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have bothered to call you out. I wanted you to get it. I don’t hate you. In fact, I like you very much.”
Now, I don’t care who you are or what kind of attitude you throw out there, if someone says that to you, it’s gonna leave an imprint on your life. Nobody had ever told me they actually liked my writing before then and something Mrs. Thornton knew was inside me erupted forth and from that moment, I gave everything I had to my writing.
I finished the paper and she passed me into the ninth grade. I wish I could tell you that my talk with Mrs. Thornton moved me to become a superior student overall, but it didn’t. All through high school, I was what we writers call, Stubborn As A Mule. But I did take it seriously every time I was given a writing assignment and I excelled in those classes. I was on a mission because suddenly I loved Mrs. Thornton. It’s hard not to love someone who inspires you and ignites a fire of passion within you for something.
This podcast comes to you courtesy of that passion. I tried to record a few of these by just writing down a few bullet points and even flying by the seat of my pants without much of a plan, but it never felt right. I always came back to writing the episode all the way out because it’s what I do and I love it. I went through a time of not writing much, but I came back to it and at this recording, I’ve finished two novels and two plays, with more on the horizon and I’m just getting started. I owe that to one teacher who, in her wisdom and love for her students, refused to accept anything but the best from us. I wish I could tell her that, but I waited too late.
You know what? I’ll tell her anyway.
Thank you, Mrs. Thornton.
I love you.
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