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.