A long overdue thank-you to my 11th grade teacher (on the second anniversary of my book)

Bottom edges of a stack of lined paper with handwritten text

Sometimes you write something that you didn’t realize you’d written until the book is published and readers weigh in and you find out what you wrote.

For instance, I wrote a book of stories about a young girl who learns how to exist in the world as a visibly brown, yet invisible girl.

Writer, editor, publicist (in other words, woman of all things literary) Rosalie Morales Kearns wrote the jacket copy for my book, which describes it as “offering a portrait of the artist as a shy awkward Mexican American girl” and that it “traces Angie’s formation as a writer.”

In her interview with me for Hypertext Magazine, Rachel Swearingen, author of the award-winning story collection How to Walk on Water wrote, “Angie Rubio reminds me a little of Stephen Dedalus in Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

And so I discovered that I had written a book that contained echoes of a book I had read decades earlier in my early twenties. The revelation made sense to me. At a both conscious and unconscious level, I was chronicling my character’s responses to her surroundings, the political and social climate, her family, and her peers. She saved up and savored words. She wrote things down.

It’s the second anniversary of the publication of Living Color: Angie Rubio Stories, so, yeah, I’m talking about my book again. I might’ve bypassed this occasion except for unearthing something I wrote in eleventh grade that has direct bearing on one of the stories in Living Color.

Pages of an eleventh-graders autobiographyWhile sifting and sorting through boxes of personal items from the way back past, I happened upon the handwritten (neatly, I might add), 18-page autobiography I wrote in eleventh grade. It was the big assignment in the junior-year curriculum and I had dreaded it ever since my older sister was obliged to do it two years before me. My life was uninteresting and did not merit the effort, which is why I referred to the first four years of my life as the best days of my childhood. Considering that studies suggest memory begins at age two and a half, my four best years are reduced to one and a half. The years beyond that are a mere mundanity.

Excerpt from the pages of a novelIn Living Color, Angie Rubio is given the same assignment and she feels the same way I did about it. After all, what did a sixteen-year-old have to say about her life to that point? Angie has a more inventive way of approaching the assignment for which her teacher rewards her with tempered praise, which she grabs onto like a lifeline.

Not exactly what he’d had in mind, he had said about her autobiography, but provocative, nonetheless. Bold, even. He’d given her an A minus.

If I was not as provocative or bold as Angie, I did have an inkling of how to pick from the mundane and if not dress it up, select my vocabulary to provide a bit of entertainment, that is, with a little bit of snark that I must’ve thought was sophistication. As if I believed myself to be Jane Austen, I used words like ghastly, dreadful, indelibly, and indeed.

At Sweetwater High, my own teacher, Mr. Niemuth – a bushy-eyebrowed, sometimes wild-haired, soft-spoken man who desperately wanted us to care about Nathaniel Hawthorne and Frank Norris (I did, in fact, continue to read their work long after I left his class) – was sparse with his margin notes (two instances of red-penciled Excellent) and exclamatory in his brief endnote:

Well written! Your quiet and almost speechless behavior belie the active mind that emits its covert expressions.

There was a reason I kept that paper all these years. Even before I became a writer, maybe I knew I wanted to be one even if I didn’t quite believe I could be.

So thank you to Mr. Niemuth and all the teachers who have written words of encouragement to a student who has otherwise felt unseen. A student will hang on to them for decades, five in my case. Words, as they say, matter.

Yearbook photo of a high school English teacher




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