To Nelda, Who Made Me a Writer

“You are a great writer, Ashton. Better than most students I’ve had,” Mrs. Reichley said, her tone serious and intentional, holding one of my papers in her hand as she looked at me from across the desk. She continued, “You’re not trying in my class, and I know that, I can see that. I know you can pass without trying, I know you know you can pass without trying, but I’m not going to let that fly anymore. I see you, and I want you to try. You’re too smart and too good at this stuff not too.”

I looked back at her, terrified. I was in the eleventh grade and had been “making it” in school for as long as I could remember, especially in English. I wasn’t a bad student, it’s just that the work wasn’t challenging and therefore I didn’t care. My single dad knew I was passing, and trusted me to keep my grades up. My teachers, until this moment, had never said anything, and I considered myself a genius for the simple fact that I’d graduate high school with a good transcript and little to no stress. I didn’t care about school because I didn’t have to. Mrs. Reichley, my favorite teacher, was trying to change that, and it scared me.

“You’re not supposed to know that,” I said, smirking. Mrs. Reichley, whom I called by her first name, Nelda, was the eleventh grade English teacher. She was witty and smart and, obviously, saw me in a way no other teacher ever had. Her seeing me, her noticing me, and loving me well even though she didn’t have to, was the most foreign thing in the world. And she was affirming my role as a writer? What the heck was I supposed to do with that?

“I know you think that,” She smirked back at me, eyebrows raised, “but it’s actually my job to know that, and I’m sorry no one else has before. Do you enjoy writing? Do you write outside of my class?”

My relationship with Nelda was one of sarcasm and wit. I’d say sarcastic things in class, she’d roll her eyes at me and laugh. I’d answer questions, sometimes, when no one else would. (More often than not, I withheld answers to questions for the simple joy of it feeding my pride.) She’d grade my papers and ask me why I didn’t study for our vocabulary tests (because they are obsolete and I don’t care). It, traditionally, wasn’t very personal or very serious. I’d had a rough experience in high school after my parents split up and she knew that because seemingly everyone knew that and when you go to school in a town on a literal island, people have a way of learning things about you. This conversation, this affirmation from her and the care in her eyes wasn’t our typical dance. I didn’t know these steps, and I feared that if I let her see too much of me, if I showed up to this conversation in the way her eyes were telling me she was, that she would choose to leave, too.

But then, on the other hand, she was asking me about writing. She called me a great writer, which was and still is the quickest way to my heart. I loved writing. It was my favorite thing to do, and I was shocked that she thought I was good at it. I thought I was good at it, sure, and so did my friends, but this was an English teacher talking. My heart leapt at the idea of getting to really talk to someone about writing, and this was Nelda, so I decided to lean in.

“Yes, I love to write,” I shyly said back to her. I was anything but shy, especially in her classroom, but this was different. At this point I’d pulled a desk up close to hers. It was lunch time, or break, I think, and the room would stay empty for a while.

“Good. You need to be writing. I think you could really have a future with it. I’d love to read anything else you’ve written.”

“Oh, really? Thank you. I haven’t a lot lately, but I could try and write for you.” I was itching for an audience. In earlier years, I’d written short love stories with my best friends as the heroines. I wrote letters to people I’d never send. I journaled, almost daily, processing the never ending challenges that come with being a teenager. I read more than I wrote, but the more I read the more I wanted to write. It was an endless cycle, really. It still is.

“I’d love that.” Nelda smiled at me. “But also, know that I’ll be grading you harder from here on. I know you’re smarter than you let on, Ashton, and I want you to do my assignments in a way that reflects that. I’m just asking you to try. Even on the vocab tests.” She smiled, and I smiled back at her, feeling happy and safe and loved.

“Okay, I think I can do that. Maybe...”

“I know you can,” she handed me the paper she was holding and I stuffed it into my binder. “Even on the vocab tests,” she smiled.

“Thanks, Nelda,” I smiled back as I got up and walked out of her classroom.

Over the next year and a half, Nelda would continue to define and structure my relationship with words and stories. My dad had taught me how to read, my friends had encouraged me to write, but Nelda taught me how to use those things to my advantage. Telling stories made more sense to me than anything else. They were my home, the way I was able to escape reality and rest. Nelda is the one who first really celebrated that part of me, while also coaching me to strengthen my skills.  She asked to read my stuff, whether it was for school or not. She graded my work at a higher standard while I was her student, and reminded me of that standard when she was no longer the one doing the grading. I worked as her aid my senior year and continued to get to know her and let her see me, and my writing, until I graduated. She once told me that something I wrote her made her cry and reminded her why she was in the job she had, and it felt unreal. The idea that my words could have that kind of power, even when it wasn’t intended, was the coolest feeling in the world.

If I’d never had that conversation with Nelda, I’m not sure where I would be in life. She saw me and my writing to be inseparable, just like I did. Rather than encouraging me to study something that would get me the career and security and whatever, she told me to keep writing. She encouraged me to trust that words and stories would love me back. She called things out in me that I otherwise would have hidden away. She told me I was a writer, and I believed her, and that was enough.

Ashton Ray