In Kindergarten, I was out of class for six straight school days because of the chicken pox. When I finally returned to class with my Big Bird velour turtle neck and my suddenly too-loose Garanimal pants, Ms. Hunter—mean and matronly old Ms. Hunter—gave me a huge hug that lifted me off the ground. She missed me, and I felt it.
In first grade, I was heartbroken when Sister Lynn Michelle was transferred to another parish in a far away land called Michigan. She wrote me letters from there in her perfect handwriting and sealed the envelope with stickers of Jesus sitting with little children. She treasured me, her little pen pal. I knew it even then.
In fifth grade, Mrs. Price found out that the girls in my class snubbed me in the lunchroom. She told my parents about it and continued to look out for me the rest of the year. She insisted on giving me a B in penmanship, but she loved me. And I knew it.
Freshman year, Mrs. Medina read my essay about an accident in Hawaii where my friend’s father drowned. She kept me after class to ask me how I was doing. “I didn’t know you were there,” she said, apologizing for not talking to me sooner. She was worried about me. I saw it in her eyes.
Junior year, Kelly Ray-Grady, the campus minister, was the attentive audience to what I thought was a near-nervous breakdown. I told her about my secret throwing up, and she offered to get me counseling. She made some calls on my behalf, and she sought me out at junior retreat. “How are you doing?” she asked with compassion. I knew she cared; I knew she could see me.
Senior year, Mr. Bridwell balked when I told him I was headed to a giant state university where the English department was third-rate. “I know people at SMU,” he said, concerned that something inside me would fail to blossom in College Station. He wanted me to have more; he was willing to call in favors. I heard his love in his offer.
When I got my Master’s degree, I was paralyzed with fear and crippled by a sense of inadequacy. I was out of my element and half out of my mind. Deborah Nelsen, my thesis advisor, told me to keep reading and keep writing. “Keep the focus on yourself and your passion,” she counseled. I knew she wanted me to succeed. Instead of dropping out of graduate school and slinking back to Texas, I kept at it. I saw her at graduation, smiling broadly at me. I could feel her warm wishes for me.
These were my teachers, my helpers, and my mentors. Their hands on my back guided me forward when it seemed impossible or when I didn’t even know I needed guidance or when I was just a little girl, pox-scarred and happy to see that my teacher remembered me even after missing a week and a day of school.
None of these teachers saved my life in an emergency, but each helped me understand that I had a life worth living, talents worth sharing, and losses worth grieving. I can still feel their supportive hands on my back, and I feel their spirits cheering me on still today.