Thirty years ago, Barbara Aspinall changed my life. She started me down the path I’m still on today–and that you’re on right now with me.
Ms. Aspinall taught English at Annandale High School in Annandale, Virginia. In some ways, she was rough around the edges. A heavy smoker, she occasionally closed the door to her classroom, lit up, and just blew the smoke out the window. No student would ever report her, she knew, because all of us adored her.
She taught with such passion that she sometimes wound up cursing in class. But never at a student. Never at another person. At some stupidity or cruelty or another, depicted in fiction or (worse) displayed in real life.
She taught poetry to sleepy 16-year-old suburbanites, and she did it with such care, concern, and personality that we thought it was great. At least, I did.
Of course, I didn’t admit to a penchant for poetry back then. For a 16-year-old boy in 1987, there was nothing less cool than poetry. Writing song lyrics was maybe okay. But “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”? No way.
Ms. Aspinall, however, was clever. One afternoon, she asked me to stay after class.
“Steve,” she said, in her slightly funky southern drawl, “I want you to know, I’ve noticed your little habit.”
“My habit?” I asked.
“The way you’re constantly writing down verses in your notebook.”
“Those are song lyrics,” I said. “I’m in a band. I play the drums. And sometimes I write song lyrics.”
“I know it,” she said. “I know it. Anyway, you’ve got a real aptitude for it–a certain way with words, as they say. And having a certain way with words is a special thing. I never want to see that go to waste.”
“Um, okay,” I said.
“So here’s what I think we should do. I’ll make you up a list of poems to read and write about, outside what the class is doing. They won’t necessarily be easy poems; some will be downright hard, but the idea is to push yourself, right?”
I wasn’t sure what the idea was, honestly, but I nodded anyway, as nodding was clearly called for.
“And you can work on those and we’ll talk about them some,” she said. “And I’ll give you extra credit, if you need it.”
I didn’t need it. Extra attention and the chance to do something I secretly liked were plenty (as she surely knew they would be).
For the rest of the year, Ms. Aspinall periodically gave me lists of poems. And I read the poems and talked with her about them–from Byron’s beautiful homage to his dog to Frost’s meditation on looking down life’s roads to (of course) “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”
Sometimes I responded with poems of my own–pasty pale imitations of the originals, to be sure, but veritable efforts to versify from a 16-year-old boy in 1987 Virginia. Proof, in other words, that Ms. Aspinall was a pedagogical nonpareil, an educational Einstein.
A few weeks ago, my father discovered some ancient notebooks of mine, in a box he had kept in storage. Their slightly crusty pages were filled with handwritten song lyrics and other poems I wrote in my late high school years, after my time with Ms. Aspinall. They’re funny to read now, of course–filled with teen angst and high-minded pronouncements on problems I thought I had solved back then but actually barely discovered: love, truth, loyalty, rage, justice, and so on.
I can confirm without question that I was never destined to be the next T.S. Eliot. But I remember even now that those writings gave me an outlet in difficult times, a way to express thoughts and feelings that otherwise tied me in knots. Just as importantly, they helped me begin to find the person I’ve since become.
Eventually, my affection for poetry led me to Shakespeare. And studying Shakespeare, oddly enough, led me to Italy–where I met my wonderful wife of 20 years. That led to my darling daughters, who became the inspiration for this blog.
There were certainly twists and turns along the way, places where, in the metaphorical forest of my existence, two roads diverged in a wood, and I–I had to choose the one to travel by. But I’m not sure I even would have found the right forest if not for the efforts of Barbara Aspinall, the best teacher I ever had.
Ms. Aspinall put me in touch with a bunch of famous poems, but her more important gift to me was the gift of a little extra attention, along with some words of encouragement and constructive criticism. No big deal from one perspective. But from another, the very thing we all need to grow: a gesture at what we can be, a little encouragement, some coaching, and maybe the promise of some (ultimately unneeded) extra credit.
Obviously, I never became a great poet or a famous writer. That isn’t the point. I became a better me. And eventually I found a way to make a living–and a life for which I’m grateful–based upon “a certain way with words” that I didn’t know I had before Ms. Aspinall told me.
So Ms. Aspinall, wherever you are, I’m grateful. I should have written sooner to tell you. Every day of every week I still enjoy the gifts you gave me. I’m writing even now, thanks to you. I’m writing, even now. Thanks to you.
21 thoughts on “If You Can Read This, Thank Ms. Aspinall ”
Steve I was not one of Ms Aspinall’s gifted students. Where ever she is I’m pretty sure she is very proud of at least one who obviously is. Your description is spot on. With very fond remembrance I can hear her encouraging voice ringing true. She once told me that ‘ no one will know who you are, or how much you know unless you can put it down on paper ‘.
Thanks, Scott. I think she saw the potential in each of us and did all she could to cultivate it. That is a simple and utterly remarkable thing, in a teacher or anyone else. I hope you and yours are well!
As I read your narrative about Miss Aspinall, I was reading all my own thoughts about her. It’s hard to believe it has been 50 years since I was in her 11th grade honors class at Annandale High School where she changed my life in the same way. Whenever I read something profound or we’ll-constructed, I thank her for showing me how to lay hold of It’s meaning and form. Miss Aspinall encouraged me through poetry, both reading it and writing it. She taught me in 12th grade as well in her creative writing class. I was excited every day when I walked down that senior hall, past the smoke-filled teachers lounge, to her 11:45 oasis of insight and trust. I don’t really want to go back there, because I carry what I learned and who I became all the way to today. Thanks, Miss Aspinall.
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We’ve never met, Steve – but our parents were, and are, great friends. My mom was an English teacher also, and even as a little girl I could see the genuine interest she had in each of her students – I would have loved to have been one of them. I met my own Mrs. Aspinall in the sixth grade at Kings Park Elementary and think of Mrs. Oliver every time I am tempted to give less than my best; an engaged teacher is such a gift!
So true. I’m not sure how we haven’t met, but your family has been dear to me for as long as I can remember! Thanks for reading and replying.
Beautiful blog, Steve. I was also blessed to have Ms. Aspinall take me aside to work with me and push me to do more. She was an amazing woman and truly my favorite teacher.
Thanks, Susan. Truly a remarkable teacher who helped each of us improve.
I just came across this from a link on Facebook.
Barbara and I are good friends, she was one of many teachers at AHS that my late mother had the great pleasure of teaching and being close friends with. She doesn’t ‘do’ computers so I’ll be printing off copy and sending it to her this weekend.
I know she appreciates the accolades her former students give, as do I seeing them come her way.
Warmest regards from a ‘Friend of Aspinall’
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Thanks so much, Robert! I’m thrilled to think that this long-overdue thank you note will actually reach her. Please give her my best and let her know that dozens of other AHS students “liked” and “shared” and commented on my post, all noting the important role she played in their lives.
HI, your comment is 3.5 years old ,but I’m thrilled to find out that Ms. Aspinall has a fan club. She took me aside and gave me Walt Whitman to read when I was a junior or senior. She and Rose Little, the Russian and Latin teacher. I adored them both. I’m sure Ms. Little is deceased, but do you know how I can reach Ms. Aspinall to thank her? I ended up with an English degree from Harvard, in large part due to her. Thanks, Anne O’Leary
Steve, I came across your blog from a Facebook post, also, and I want to thank you for reminding me of Ms. A. Honestly, she is the reason I became an English teacher in Fairfax County. I visited her once after college when I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life. I didn’t go to her for advice or to find direction or anything; I Judy happened to be in the neighborhood. As I was leaving the school that day, though, I realized that I loved reading and writing because of my time in Ms. Aspinall’s class. I walked out the front door of AHS Ann’s drove straight to George Mason to register for grad school. That was in 1989. I’m now finishing my 24th year in the classroom, and I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I’ve wished I could thank her for the inspiration she gave me. My years teaching American Civ. brought back such incredible memories, and I tried to remember everything n she taught so that I could pass the knowledge on to others. Giving them the information was only part of the equation, though. I’ve tried to inspire my students like she did for others. It hasn’t always been easy, but I try to remember all of her efforts. I guess she’s still inspiring me all these years later.
What a great tribute to her! I’m sure your kids are lucky to have you like we were to have her.
I had Ms. Aspinall for English my junior year at AHS in 1966. She must have been in her 20’s then, and yes, she was a bit rough around the edges, but she was probably the most memorable teacher I ever had. I loved English, but I was a shy student who didn’t seek attention –and she saw me. One day in class I said something that cracked her up – who knows why since I wasn’t a funny kid -and she got the uncontrollable giggles! I think we were both surprised.
Obviously Ms. Aspinall went on to have an amazing impact on generations of students, because she could always see them. I have never forgotten her, and I’m glad to know I was an early member of her fan club.
Ms As[inall taught me in 1967. I remember quaking walking in to her class from all that I had heard about her. What I discovered through the academic year was that this was a “teacher” in every sense of the word.. She cared so much about her students, she wanted them to be the best they could be. She was tough. As a teenager I felt she was one of the teachers that you really had to deal with, no goofing off in her class. She was too smart and could see through our shenanigans. Thank you Ms Aspinall for all that you have done for thousands of your students.The long term effect continues and I am certain many of your students have become teachers thanks to our example.
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I have been searching Barbara Aspinall on the web since there was a web to search. I am so glad to know that she is still around and is aware of her former students and their gratitude and strong memories of her and her amazing classes. I was very interactive with her in 1970-71. I took her classes because they were HARD and I was bored out of my mind and had been ever since school started age 6. She gave us more than many college english courses. Edgar Lee Masters, Eliot, Juan Ramon Jiminez, excellent creative writing coaching~ entered us in literary contests, gave much of her time and energy to bringing us out and along.
I helped her grade her papers, and we BOTH smoked in her office with the door closed~ a very big secret, but she trusted me to grade her papers the way she would herself, and being able to smoke in productive solitude with her kept me from heaven knows what other trouble. Surely she must be retired and no harm will come of my sharing this now. She put a tremendous amount of energy into showing me a path forward as an independent creative mind, helping me overcome the crushing, impossible weight of a severely abusive home life. Between Miss Aspinall and the guidance counselor Mrs.Randa, I gained enough freedom of spirit and internal momentum to continue as Ferol, and become the adult I wanted to be. I will never, ever be able to repay the generosity and intense focus and excellence of both of these women. As an adult, most of my friends are now well-known published authors, and this was all shaped early on, by Ms. A’s oversight, influence, and intense training and discipline in writing. Finally, I myself am a teacher now, and I use much the same style in engaging my own pupils.
If I thought that Ms. A knew that, I would be so deeply satisfied, and thankful. I came back to find her when I was 30, and visited her at her home. She loved to play bridge. I would give a lot to know that she is happy and still motivated with her special brand of joie de vivre. I can still hear her unique way of speaking, with the tone ticking up at the end of every statement, like it was a question. An amazing woman. Not more than 3-4 to equal her in all these 50 years since. Thank you for this blog post which makes it all current, and not past. Ferol
Thanks for writing, Ferol! She inspired so many of us. Great to hear that you’ve gone on to teach, too.
Another fan of Barbara Aspinall here. I was in her 11th grade English class in 1963-64, and I concur with what all of you said about her. She made me cry once. I had written a paper for her, and she told me that it was the worst paper she’d ever seen. I left the room and went to the bathroom to cry — and she followed me there, with her goofy self trying to appear sympathetic while also trying to figure out what had gone wrong. I also became a teacher, in part because of what I learned from her — how to challenge students to get the best out of them, but also how to acknowledge when you screw up. By the way, it really was a terrible paper — but it was terrible because I was trying to do something innovative and creative but failed miserably. After she had chased me down to apologize (leaving her class unattended, I now realize as a teacher myself), I continued to try to be innovative and creative in part because she had taught me that failure was in fact an option and that it was possible to overcome setbacks. A remarkable woman.
What a wonderful story.
Ms Aspinall is the reason I have been a writer for 50 years. She was fabulous! I am so grateful to have found this post. In 1971, as a junior at AHS, she pulled poetry and essays from my reluctant hands until the wobble became so fluid that her “atta girl!”s were intoxicating. She had one of my poems published that year… I remember she kept a Xmas wreath on her door all year, and that she was fond of attending funerals, just for the sake of the eulogies. Yes, my all time favorite educator, and truth be told, my go to online security question answer to this day.
What a wonderful story. Thank you for sharing!
Just want to add that Ms. Aspinall was my favorite teacher at AHS (I graduated in 1971 and took all the classes I could from her). She was so encouraging but also honest. She was willing to read what I was writing on my own, a sometimes lonely teenager writing song lyrics in the Age of Aquarius. I wrote some poetry and short stories too. I remember one time she read a 4-page story that I brought to her, and totally crossed out 2 of the 4 pages. She told me two pages were good, and two were terrible, so start over with the two she left. But she was so kind and encouraging in the way she told me. I was a verbose writer, and she was right. I never knew Ms. Aspinall’s background, and it’s fun to glean some of it from the comments here. I got a love of poetry from her teaching that has been with me through my life. I was an English major in college and finished law school, plus later got a master’s in counseling. Always what I learned about writing, as well as her love of literature, helped me in every part of my life. It also encouraged me to help my own children be exposed to poetry. One of my son’s was also an English major in college. Teachers never know where the seeds of knowledge they send out will land and flourish. Thank you Ms. Aspinall.