Thank You, Mrs. Jackson

English was always one of my favorites subjects in school because I got to write and that was always my favorite. I really believe that I had a lot of great English teachers over the years. In their own ways, each of them contributed to my future self, and I am grateful for having the experiences with them that I did. They are a credit to the public school system.

There was crazy Mrs. Truitt, who taught us that sometimes story telling can be unpredictable, as she demonstrated every time she had a psychotic flashback in class. There was Mrs. McClung, who showed our ninth grade class the original film version of Romeo and Juliet by Franco Zeffirelli, giving most of the boys in our class their first look at bonafide breasts. There was Mrs. Holcholser, who was hopelessly in love with writing and always trying to make students level of appreciation match her own.

And then there was the one who stood a step above the pack: Mrs. Jackson. Mrs. Jackson had the unfortunate experience of being our teacher just one year after Outkast released “Miss Jackson” but she was always a good sport about it, even as some of the jerky boys in our class sang it to her. It was tenth grade English--a hard year for students in the high school arena. At least I found it that way for me.

Everyone said she was the best tenth grade English teacher, and those who got the “other teacher” were always disappointed....though we always had more homework. What really stood out about Mrs. Jackson is how proud she always was, not in a pretentious way, but in a way that you want to emulate and live your life in. She was three quarters Native American as well as a quarter black and white, and proud to talk about her heritage. She also had high moral standards and she wasn’t afraid to share them with anyone who wanted to lend an ear.

I remember this story she told about how when she was a younger mother, her kids pulled up in the car with a friend and the mother was blaring “I wanna sex you up.” She looked on, horrified, as the kids sang along, thinking about how inappropriate that was for children to listen to. Sure, she knew they didn’t know the meaning of the song, but it struck her in that moment, and she used it as a teachable moment in the classroom about appropriateness. It was something I loved about her.

She could have the class roaring to her story about a song in the car, but really use it. She had these big, expressive eyes and she used her hands to really hit the story home. She was an exceptional story teller. Most importantly, though, she was tough when it came to discipline and she understood the value of letting students be creative within the classroom.

I remember other classrooms in high school. I remember when other [mostly male] students sexualized me or made fun of my gay best friend and how teachers never seemed to intervene. I remember when I was always seated next to someone because of the order their last name fell in conjunction to mine. But none of that existed in Mrs. Jackson’s classroom because she didn’t see the value in it. Her classroom was that proverbial safe place that many teachers strive to create and not all of them achieve.

I was 18 years old and working in a Birkenstock shoe store when a customer came in and told me that she had cancer. I cried when they left the store. I was alone, and I hurriedly ordered flowers for her. I wanted to offer a small gesture to her, to show her that everything she had done for me--for us--meant so much.

Because when you are 15 and in your sophomore year of high school, you forget to say thank you to people like Mrs. Jackson. And sometimes, when you think of it, the “thank you” comes too late. When she died, I didn’t attend her funeral. I’m not especially good at that--attending funerals.

But I carry with me the memory of who she was in the classroom, and in life. She was only in my life as a teacher for that semester, but she left a lasting impression on me. We need more teachers--more people--like Mrs. Jackson. People who feel that community and safety in expression are paramount. She was always herself and that allowed others to be themselves in her presence as well.

So thank you, Mrs. Jackson. And thank you to all the Mrs. Jacksons out there who haven’t gotten a proper thank you--or who got them too late.

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