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Edna Nichols

A scientist named William Osler apparently once said, “No bubble is so iridescent or floats longer than that blown by the successful teacher.”

I’ve been lucky enough to have several teachers like that.  One was Edna Nichols, who taught English and creative writing at my high school.  She also was the advisor (inspiration, fearless leader, drill sergeant) for the little literary magazine we published.  She may not have realized it, but she was terrifically important to me.

In some ways, my memory is probably suspect.  My time with her was long, long ago, that infamously self-absorbed age—the hormonal teenage years.  I was young, diffident, easily embarrassed, terrified of being conspicuous.  I’d been newly transplanted to this high school, having just left the part of town where I’d been born, and where all my friends still lived.  I had just adopted a new nickname, in the hopes of sounding confident and breezy instead of the prissy former convent-school girl I really was.

I was, I think, a bit lost.

She wasn’t.  She owned her classroom, and, for that hour, she owned us, too.  She was middle-aged and she looked tired, but wiry.  She wore her curly hair short, and it was the color of a night with lots of clouds.  Her eyes watched you with the sharp, restless attention of a bird.  A hawk, not a sparrow.  A hawk with lasers.  She saw everything, and one look into those eyes made it clear that trying to fool her was a waste of time.

She wanted your best, and it irritated her when you didn’t give it.  When she was irritated, the eyes sharpened, and she made a wry comment that didn’t quite sting…but almost did.  Like a warning shot, into the wall beside your head.  Close enough to change your attitude without hardening your heart.

The year she taught me, she was recovering from surgery, and she needed to lie down.  She brought her patio chair into the classroom and taught from a reclining position.  Looking back now, I can’t believe she held control of a room full of seniors that way.  But somehow—perhaps with those eyes alone–she did.

I teach now, too, though just part-time, and never with her brilliance.  But when I recently broke my foot and had to teach from a ridiculous knee-scooter for seven long, embarrassing weeks, I remembered Mrs. Nichols and the elan with which she carried off her “chaise lounge.”  I knew it could be done.

I wish I remembered more of her magic.  I wish I knew how she maintained such strict discipline without blighting the confidence and enthusiasm necessary for reading poetry or writing from your soul.  Many, many times I’ve wished I could go back to my high school, and sit like a ghost in one of the empty chairs, watching Mrs. Nichols teach.  I could learn things now, I’m sure, that I was too young to understand back then.

How did she convince me that my silly, self-indulgent poems were good enough to publish for the rest of the school?  How did she inspire me to take the infinitesimal seed of talent and grow it into a lifetime career?  How did she blow the bubble of writing joy into my life, a bubble that still floats through every day?

Perhaps it was that, in the end, she liked us.  She believed in us.  And she kept her message simple.  She had one writing rule, stressed over and over until we finally got it.  “Begin in media res,” she’d say.  Begin in the middle of things.  Begin where it matters.

And she had one life rule, too.  She signed my yearbook with this Jonathan Swift quote, and I’ll bet I could find that same message in a hundred other yearbooks, too.  “May you live every day of your life.”

I just learned that Mrs. Nichols has been struggling with some health problems.  I hate that.  I hate that she’s not still standing in a classroom, aiming a wry joke just beyond the ears of some teenagers who need to settle down, so that she can teach them the joys of books and poetry…and life.

But I know the bubbles she created in all these years still survive.  And I want to thank her for mine.  Be well, Mrs. Nichols!  Thank you.

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