As a woman who has been known to speak her mind both in print and polite company, I’ve often been asked about the people who mentored me while I was growing up. The unspoken assumption is that my role models must have been women. Strong women.
Many of them were. I attended an all-girls elementary school and a women’s college. My coed private high school held a clique of leftwing female academics. From the honors English teacher who introduced me to Toni Morrison and Virginia Woolf to the eccentric painter whose house was an homage to macrame, a number of extraordinary women shared with me a version of womanhood that ran counter to the dippy sitcom moms I watched on TV.
When I was in fifth grade, my school merged with a preppy boys’ school, and my slice of the world changed. Lessons in table manners gave way to lectures on how not to lose a finger in the band saw. Timed sprints up a muddy hill replaced the Virginia Reel as appropriate gym curriculum. Life at my new school was often a bit scary, but it felt bold and exhilarating compared to the cosseted world I had come from.
I still love Morrison, Woolf, and the woman teacher who gave them to me. But my love for translating thoughts into words first took root when my sixth-grade English teacher, Mr. Close, planted the seed. No educational challenge came close to those set for me by this veteran of World War II, who liked to grade multiple-choice tests using military jargon instead of the more standard ABCs. “Baker, Charlie, Charlie, Apple, Apple,” he announced as we dutifully checked the answers with our precisely sharpened number two pencils.
Other teachers at the school encouraged their students to pull up a beanbag chair and chat about the latest Judy Blume novel, but in Mr. Close’s room we diagrammed sentences. Our assigned reading included Howard Pyle’s Men of Iron, a coming of age story set in 15th century England that was really a treatise about male honor.
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