Day 2 of Thanks-giving honors Nancy Zettergren, my high school journalism instructor. She was the first teacher I ever had who let us call her by her first name.
I entered the journalism room as a sophomore in high school - my only experience was working on the middle school paper which was NOTHING like working on the high school paper. I hadn't taken J-1 (the introduction to journalism course), but I was on the newspaper staff that first year. Nancy had faith in me, in my writing. She had high expectations and she expected us to meet them. I loved that kind of environment.
On layout days, we had to come to school and work on the paper at 6am, so we would have hot cocoa and work with the wax machines and exacto knives and the light tables. The staff that first year was amazing - they had a wide range of experience and influence in the school and tried to teach us all that they knew before graduation. Nada was my mentor in class - she was the copy editor and taught me all the markings and all about working with the copy and editing stories. At the end of the year, Nancy named me Copy Editor for my junior year. I was thrilled.
In my junior year, I took my first creative writing class and I started showing Nancy my poetry. She was my biggest supporter and encouraged me to submit poems to the literary magazine in the spring. I didn't have any confidence in poetry - it was so new. I had always seen myself as a short story or fiction writer, but poetry was something that I felt deeply and Nancy nurtured those new explorations. She was also responsible for me going to the drama department to write one of my first feature stories about "A Circle Of Hope", a student written play. There I met friends I have had since that time.
In my junior year, Nancy started us writing journal entries. We all pretended to hate it, but it actually helped me to start daily writing and I carried that out until a few years later and is what I am trying to recapture here. Nancy would write a different prompt on the board and we spent the first 10 minutes of the newspaper class writing our entry. There were a couple of entries that were stand-out to me - one was "Bald models are..." At the time, I was pretty sheltered and pretty conservative in my tastes (I didn't know any better), so bald models were totally outside of my personal experience or ability to understand... Sounds corny now, but I remember that one. I wrote some pithy response that probably ended up in a note to Jeffa. The other prompt I remember was, "If I only had tomorrow to live..." In some ways, it was the start of my numerous explorations of death, dying, and trying to understand the meaning of it all. I never would have guessed that so much of my life has been consumed with the topic.
That year, Nancy appointed me Editor-in-Chief of the paper. I was over the moon! I'm not sure I was really that great at it...but it was the first time in my life that I tried to subvert the dominant paradigm, as it were. By this time, nearly everyone in the newspaper and yearbook classes were involved in drama in some small way. We were all tired of the sports dominance in the school when there were so many other activities and groups in the school that were barely recognized, much less celebrated. We started moving the football team off the front page and relegating it to the back in the sports section - unheard of!! Nancy let us go and we also had to weather the storm of complaints about the change (storm might be a little too strong of a word...more like bluster). Nancy's support never wavered for me - even when I made mistakes. I made a lot, but I learned so much in those years, about myself, myself as a writer, myself as a possible leader. I loved it, but I wanted to be better.
At the same time, Nancy continued to encourage me to write poetry and she was always the first person I showed new poetry to. Poetry is so personal and she just lifted me up every time we talked.
I remember funny things about Nancy - I would love to see her again. I remember the year that we suddenly couldn't have Christmas trees and celebrate Christmas. We made up weird replacements - a purple wish tree (shaped amazingly like a Christmas tree) and we cut out colored snowflakes to put around the room. I think she may have been the person to show me how to cut the most intricate snowflakes...it wasn't a secret, I had just never seen them folded in quite that way and it became a silly high school passion for me - I cut snowflakes (purple wishflakes, as I recall) all winter. I remember trying to learn how to develop negatives in the dark room and how much I sucked at it. She never made me feel badly - just tried to talk me through it.
Nancy had migraines, too. She was the first person I had ever known who had these debilitating headaches and she totally understood what it meant to say, "I have a headache." Hers were so much worse than mine...I remember she had to go lay down in the dark room for a while one time - she was so sick. In those conversations about migraines, I started to recognize some of the triggers I had and started learning how to fend them off, delay them to the weekend, etc.
Even after I graduated, I continued to stop by for visits for a few years. She never looked at me like, "Loser, what are you doing here..." She always welcomed me with open arms and a long chat. I miss seeing her...
Nancy, I don't know if you will ever read this or if I will ever be able to find you, but I wanted to say THANK YOU. You made such a positive impression on me - I left high school knowing I could do something special in the world because of you. I may not have done exactly what I had planned, but I walked away feeling special because of you. Thank you for teaching me. Thank you for befriending me. Thank you for caring. Thank you for being you. I think of you often. I send you much love. Thank you, Nancy Zettergren, for being a great teacher.