Pale Teacher

by Nancy Creager

January 2015 

She was my first Creative Writing Teacher. At that time it was called Composition. I was ten.

As she entered the classroom, I noticed her face, pale and unsmiling. She carried a briefcase. It was black, plain, large – in clear disproportion to her five-foot frame. She bent slightly to the right under its weight.

I sat in the back of the class. I don’t remember her name, lost in the many shuffles of my life. But I do remember what she taught me.

It was the first day of school after summer vacation, and my first day in this new school. The classroom was bursting with tanned girls in ponytails, their delicate voices a sweet background music. In this all-girls school we wore a standard uniform: dark blue jacket with four golden buttons in front, same color skirt, a white enduring blouse, black closed-in shoes and white bobby socks; it blended us all alike on the outside.

The classroom was large and monastic, an enclosure to learn, not to laugh. But there was a row of small windows on the left side of the room, which I imagined as a birdcage enclosing the chants of my classmates. The room’s focal point was the oblong blackboard at the center, where the new teacher’s name was printed in large capital letters.

I sat by one of those windows. I liked the light coming in from the outside. On my desk: a notebook, a pencil and an eraser. I had a thing for erasers. I liked their smell, sweet and quiet and their soft pliable touch in my fingers, but most of all I loved their forgiveness.

I could scream at my notebook in capital letters, stare at my outburst, feel wretched and then erase it all.

Outside, a light autumn rain was falling.

First lesson: Pale Teacher told us about writing, the power of listening to our thoughts and putting them on paper, giving them a light, giving them body and breath, giving them a life. She called them “admits” or confessions slips. We would write anonymously about ourselves, to be read aloud by her to the class. Somehow, I understood it was more than a composition about what we did last summer.

I was mad that morning. I was lost that morning. My grandmother, the woman who raised me, had died three months before. I was now living with two people who said they were my parents. I had met the lady before; my grandma told me that someday I would need to go to live with that lady— her daughter— the lady who brought us groceries on Sundays. I couldn’t accept that the tall, cold stern lady was my mother, as she was so different from my grandmother’s prettiness and sunshine. Whenever I heard her knock at our door, I would hide behind the couch by the wall thinking that, if she didn’t see me, she would forget about me. Secretly, I would have liked to hear her calling my name. But she didn’t.

My father was a revelation. He was the first male I saw closely. His hair was black, thick and curly, like mine. He laughed; he looked wholesome. He took me out for ice cream on the back of his motorcycle and asked me about my schooling and my favorite subjects. I recognized that he wanted me to be an educated lady. It felt good. He had a luminosity that lit up the room. My light, however, soon darkened. My mother told me about him one day after he had left again. She yelled that he was an unfaithful man, though I didn’t know the meaning of “unfaithful.” She yelled he had a mistress and three children though I didn’t know the meaning of “mistress” either. I didn’t understand any of it — I just knew that it was something awful and dirty. I liked my father; therefore I must’ve been dirty as well. I felt ashamed. I wanted to disappear—to become invisible—and then Pale Teacher told us to write…

As if taking dictation I wrote:

“They say they are my parents; I don’t know them. They yell at each other, I shake. The lady says awful things; I feel pins in my body. We live in a big dark room with no partition. I miss grandma’s house. Yesterday, the landlady called us gypsies. I don’t want to be with them. I’m scared to become like them—“

Because I didn’t know the meaning of anonymously, I signed with my first and last name firmly written with the pencil scratching into the paper.

The other girls’ papers held sunny accounts of vacations, beach pails and sand castles, the new baby’s name, the boy across the street. After I found out what “anonymous” meant, I wondered why truths would need to be unsigned. I also realized that I inhabited a very different world than my classmates. Later on I learned that in my rural town there was no divorce, but that gossips and innuendos ran rampant.

When it came time to read aloud my slip to the class, Pale Teacher’s eyes brushed mine. They seemed to cloud. I knew it was my paper and felt shame crawl over me. My cheeks seemed to catch fire and my hands shook as in a temblor. When she started reading it in a low, soft whispering voice, she looked at the ceiling periodically as if asking for courage to continue. My thoughts were written in large letters, ignoring margins and lines, twisted and contorted, but when Pale Teacher read them, they sounded musical. At the end of it, she looked beyond the walls, without ever making eye contact with me. As the class became restless, she did not mention my name. And then I knew that this lady had suffered much as well. Maybe that was what she was carrying in that big dark briefcase.

As she read in a soulful, infectious voice I looked out the window and imagined a cloud opening up. I felt warmth as I rubbed my two feet, a tactile sign that I was alive.

Outside, the rain had stopped falling.

In the following years, I found a way to soar away from that dark room, but the black briefcase came with me as well. It’s heavy to haul raw red memories. Each time I write the weight feels lighter, I soften another scar, I birth another pardon. I kept on writing about my truths, my dreams, my loves, my hates and everything in between. I found my voice.

Here is to you, Pale Teacher.

Nancy Creager Comment