Steve Jobs once said, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.”
When I learned it was National Teacher Appreciation Week and I began to reflect on my own experiences as a young student, I was reminded of all the remarkable educators who had guided me through my adolescent education. Some were tough, no-nonsense types, leading with discipline and order in preparation for the “real world.” Others were gentle and nurturing, carefully negotiating their students’ individual passions and the state-required syllabus. But when I thought about the teacher by whom I felt most inspired, most empowered, a whole constellation of dots finally connected. Julie Faulstich is still blowing my mind.
At 14, I was given the opportunity to attend Walnut Hill School in Natick, Massachusetts, a specialized high school for children with creative inclinations and professional artistic aspirations. If you’ve ever seen the movie Fame, it’s kind of like that. (Remember “Hot Lunch“? Yeah. We had a jukebox in our cafeteria. No joke.) But Walnut Hill also had a stellar academic curriculum and students were expected to give just as much to their studies as they did their art.
Julie (who insisted we call her by her first name) taught English. I remember on the first day of class, Julie perched on top of her desk rather than sitting behind it like so many teachers I’d had before. She asked us to rearrange our desks into a half moon and then we circled the room, sharing with each other our favorite authors and novels. Julie had an opinion about every writer and book mentioned. She was so smart, funny and, even though my teenage self would never admit it, cool. She spoke freely with such confidence and she had wonderful taste in literature. Because she believed in discussion as a means of exploring texts, she encouraged us to form opinions about what we read and to voice them without hesitation. She was so different from English teachers I’d had in the past whose idea of exploration was forcing students to read Shakespeare aloud (badly) followed by a test on all the major plot points and none of the themes. Her passion was boundless and the lenses through which she analyzed texts ranged widely from academic to creative to socio-political and feminist—the latter being the most exciting as it was not a perspective with which I was well acquainted.
And here is where the dots connect.
It was through our reading and discussion of the remarkable texts Julie assigned—often titles beloved by feminists, such as Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (the discussion of which was deliciously complex and rich) and Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings—that stirred in me my first feminist feelings. Even when studying texts written by men and featuring male protagonists, our discussions always wound their way to the lives of the women in the story. Explorations of complex female characters, including Estella in Dickens’ Great Expectations, Daisy in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and McCourt’s mother, Angela, in Angela’s Ashes, challenged me to think critically about women’s struggles for power and autonomy throughout time. To say I was inspired is an understatement: I was called to action. I wanted to share my stories. I wanted to write.
My whole life, I’d always enjoyed writing. As a child, I experimented with funny little Shel Silverstein-inspired poems and spun quirky stories about inanimate objects come to life. I even “printed” my own books, binding them with yarn and cardboard and illustrating the pages by hand. But as I approached adolescence, my confidence in myself and my writing waned. This is not uncommon. Surveys, like the one conducted by the American Association of University Women in 1991, often find that the majority of girls report feeling confident and assertive around 9 years old. By the time they reach high school, however, the percentage of girls who express a positive self-image drops to less than a third. Before I started working with Julie, there was no doubt I was teetering on the edge.
But by Christmas my first year at Walnut Hill, my confidence in myself and my work was at an all-time high. After a hilarious reading of David Sedaris’ Santaland Diaries, we began to write our own stories—personal essays about our childhoods, our family, our experiences. Julie encouraged us to write with honesty and humor like McCourt, and to allow our own unique voices to emerge without apology, a la Sedaris. With each essay I turned in, Julie nudged me a little bit more. “You have a flair for memoir,” she said. “Keep writing.”
I did keep writing. I’ve shared my stories in slams, poetry readings and stand-up clubs in New York and Los Angeles. I’ve written plays based on my experiences as a teenager and young adult which have been performed in black box theaters, parks and living rooms in big cities and small towns. Memoir is still my favorite genre to read. (At the moment, I’m devouring everything by Rebecca Solnit. Read Men Explain Things To Me—NOW!) And, hello! I work at Ms.!
Looking backwards and connecting the dots, it all began with Julie. And I am so grateful.