Listen, let's just get this out of the way now: I was a goody-goody in high school....well, actually for most of my childhood, adolescence and young adulthood. It wasn't until my mid-twenties that I learned to rebel a bit and really what kind of person rebels when they're a few years shy of 30? I guess me and all those Amish kids out on rumspringa. My parents were never particularly strict; in fact, I pretty much got to do what I wanted. And that is because what I wanted to do was go to Barnes and Noble for a mocha and a magazine (hmm, well, maybe not much has changed) and the occasional concert at the Norva or Town Point Park. I just didn't want to get into trouble (so you can be sure that Taylor is NOT singing about me, y'all)(/It's Harry Styles).
It was the same in school, too. I was what you might call a teacher's pet. My parents always expected me to pay attention and study and try my hardest but if my hardest was a C or a B or whatever, that was cool for them. The thing was, though, is that regardless of this laissez faire approach to my schooling, I still just wanted all the As and all the teachers to fall in love with me and to be their favorite. Like, I wasn't competitive insofar in that I took the lazy way out more than once (AP instead of IB, barely any extra circulars, etc) but when it came to the adoration of my teachers, I NEEDED, HAD to be on top. My 6th grade teacher, Mrs. Erquiaga (the one who told my parents I should pursue writing) gave me the Adoption Award at the end of class which stated that if my parents were to ever tire of me (tire of ME?), she'd gladly adopt me into her own family. That was about 20 years ago and I'm obviously still not over it.
Oh my god, don't I sound like such a brat? Like how obnoxious is this. I promise I wasn't a total bore or snot face.
The lone stand-out in this educator affirmation parade I was on from K-12, the only one who matters, the love of my life(WHAT), the smartest man I've ever met was Mr. Lilley. Mr. Lilley has since retired as the AP English teacher from Warwick High School but during his tenure he was beloved the way teachers are beloved in movies about beloved teachers. He was in his 40s, on the shorter side, slim, bald, with small rounded glasses and always wore khakis, a button up shirt and a tie, the end of which he would absent-mindedly flick upwards and then smooth out as he sat in his rolling chair in the center of the room, asking us questions and making us think. He was the Stanley Tucci of 12th grade literature and my hero.
He had a quick wit and a foul mouth that was refreshingly scandalous to our 17 year old ears - it felt like he was the president of this sophisticated, intellectual club and somehow had deemed us worthy of admittance. We read things like MacBeth, and As I Lay Dying, and Crime and Punishment and the Glass Menagerie and watched movies like Picnic at Hanging Rock and loads of other offbeat stuff that frustrated me and stumped me and ultimately made me a better writer and a better reader. He gave a shit whether you understood the material and didn't give a shit about things like SOLs and what kind of grades were coming out of his classroom. He was thoughtful, challenging, passionate, understanding and funny.
I straight-up worshipped this man. I greedily ate up any praise he sent my way as affirmations of my intellect and struggled to synthesize his criticisms in a way that would make me a better writer (and not suicidal). My friends teased me about being in love with him - my best friend at the time made me a mix tape once that featured Don't Stand So Close to Me by the Police (Leslie Knope: It's a mixtape full of songs about people watching people...it's mostly Sting) and I may have driven by his house once or twice (god, what) but I can assure you I wasn't trying to get with him (CAN I assure you that? I think I can). I more just wanted to be him. I wanted to know the things he knew in the offhand way he knew them. Maybe I also wanted to be a decade or so older and wiser and hang out with him over a bottle of wine at a bar. I don't know, my feelings are were all mixed up!
While I may have always tried to worm my way into the role of teacher's pet in all my classes, I was also pretty shy. I didn't like raising my hand in class and would often mutter the correct answers under my breath while hoping to god I never got called on. I did offer my opinions and thoughts in Mr. Lilley's classes though because he had that relaxed, conversational style of teaching that never put you on the spot or made you feel like something you'd just said was way, way wrong (even if it was way, way wrong). I'm sure he could sense my devotedness and would offer me words of encouragement and enjoyed the banter I, along with my group of friends, provided him. It was an intimate, comfortable relationship between Mr. Lilley and his students and it was one I wanted to win. I needed to WIN at being his student.
Winning, to me, was to get the grade 9 on a test. The AP English essay scoring rubric is on a scale from 1-9, one being the worst and nine being the best. The AP tests were held at the end of the school year and it was the teacher's mission to fill us as full as possible of lit-rat-chure between August and May to ensure we'd ace these college-level exams. One of Mr. Lilley's tactics to prepare us was to grade us throughout the year using the AP grading system; this meant all our tests were essay-style and he'd score them 1-9 every time. He gave out his grades with great care; to him a 9 was like an A+++++ and as every month passed, and every 6,7,8 was put on the top of my tests, I grew more and more frenzied in my determination to get that 9. I NEEDED Mr. Lilley to know that I was smart enough to garner this holy grail of a grade from his ennobled pen. He knew it, too, that I was vying for that top spot and gave me grief every time he put a 7 down on my desk. It became a bit of a game and like I said before....I was determined to win.
So, YES: I got a 9, once, finally, gloriously, toward the end of the year and it remains one of my greatest feelings of accomplishment and pride to this day. I'm not even kidding, his approval meant so much that this is lifetime achievement level status. I can remember it so well, sitting there in the last row, second to last seat (Randy was behind me, Cory to the side and Kelly in front) with Mr. Lilly making his way along the rows, placing the essays face down on each student's desk. I fidgeted, cursing my stupid need to sit in the back, wishing I had my damn paper already! trying to catch his eye to suss out any sign of triumph in his eye. Finally, there he was beside my desk and with a wink he put my paper down, face up, so I could see that fat red 9 dominating the top corner of my returned test. He didn't say a word to me as I stared down at this radiating unicorn sunbeam of unmitigated joy and instead lightly patted my head twice and moved on through the rows. That head pat, such a simple gesture, carried with it all the confirmation and pride and shared success that I could have ever wanted and well, y'all, I cried. Oh, the EMOTION of it all, my teenage heart could hardly take it. I got a 9 and guess where I was? Yep, I'm gonna say it. ON CLOUD NINE (sorry Mr. Lilley).
It's an incredibly challenging - and rewarding - thing to pick something you want to excel at, and then pick a person whose opinion on this something matters to you a great deal - and then set a goal for yourself that will validate your worth in this something and in the eyes of that someone. Writing is one of my life's greatest joys and most profound struggles all at the same time. Having Mr. Lilley there in the beginning shaping me and my critical eye is something for which I will be forever grateful. Anyway, are there any psychologists in the house looking to do some for-fun analyzing? I'm sure the story I just told lends itself to some kind of diagnosis.