Sunday, June 10, 2012

Why I Write

I read a jarring article today in the New York Times about Horace Mann school and the abuse suffered by many of it's students.  I am taken immediately to my own time and my own hometown of LA, where abuse of schoolchildren is being uncovered in the Los Angeles Unified School District almost as a daily occurrence.  I don't want in any way to minimize or trivialize the life-long scar something like that causes.  I abhor even having to read about it, to acknowledge its existence, the same way I abhor intolerance and violence and abject ignorance.  But, there are grand stories that come from the school districts, too.  I want to tell one.

Early in my educational career, I was determined to be what was then called a Gifted Student.  I didn't think I had done anything spectacular.  In the third grade, instead of writing a book report, I submitted a poem.  And the seed of a writer was born.

During the nurturing of my burgeoning writing talent, I was lucky to have had some amazing teachers in my school career, teachers I remember fondly by name for their passion for teaching, their love of the written words, and their ability to change a skinny little girls life.  I remember Mrs. Smith, that third grade teacher to whom I submitted my now infamous poem.  I laugh when I think of Mr. Manriquez, my 6th grade teacher who had a joy for life and teaching that was rarely matched in my continuing education.  I had a Science Teacher named Mr. Straitiff who helped me understand the changing, churning world around me.  But, standing alone in her glory in my mind is Mrs. Sleigh.

I left the comfort of my whole childhood when my Mum remarried and we moved to a tony part of town called Del Mar, Ca.  I attended Torrey Pines High School and in that school, and likely the entire district, Rosamund Sleigh was a legend.  She wore slippers to school and scuffed along in them along the cement sidewalks till the bottoms were black.  She had this one jacket she wore all the time, a long-sleeved, swingy and sparkly affair better suited to a disco than a high school campus.  I took her Humanities class in my freshman year and made certain I had her for some kind of class the remainder of my four years there.  She didn't just teach, she illuminated.  She demonstrated.  She validated things I had believed my whole life and eradicated others.  She was dynamic and fascinating.  I remember having her class right after lunch and being so excited to get to it, I would scarf my food and rush into the room to be there first, only to find half the class already there, as excited as I.  Finally, we dropped the pretense of lunch and ate it in the hallway right outside the class.  With Mrs. Sleigh you had to be there to see the show, not just talk about what you heard.  We couldn't miss anything.  You were someone if you were in the inner circle.  And I was.

I had learned long ago to figure out a new teacher on my first week in the class, then turn in papers for the remainder of the semester written in exactly the manner they dictated.  I walked into that first Humanities classroom with the intent to do the same thing.  I turned in my first paper and got it back from Mrs. Sleigh with a big red word written across the top:  CRAP.  I'd been called out.  When I went to the front of the classroom to complain, she dismissed me without hesitation.  "Don't write it for me," she said.  "Write it for yourself.  Write what you would want to read."  And a creative writer was born.

Mrs. Sleigh taught me to grab a reader from the beginning with just a few words.  She taught me that even a paragraph has a beginning, a middle, and an end. She taught me about, "Show, don't tell" long before it was a Netflix catchphrase.  She demonstrated story arc and how to sprinkle suspense into everything I wrote. And she preached that anything that came from my pen had to be entertaining, whether it be a report, a poem, or a story.  Even during debates, which she demanded we do with no research and no rehearsal, with a topic she would fling at us from thin air, I had to draw in my listener.  She made me understand that if I didn't want to read it, no one else would either.  And she helped me realize that I had a story to tell.  I had several.

She graded hard.  She had no favorites, yet I knew I was one.  She made me work, and dig inside myself. Despite the turmoil that high school years can bring, and enormous personal changes in my home life, Mrs. Sleigh taught me to write.  A year after I graduated, my brother took her class.  He tells this story: She took role and stopped at my brother's name.  She paused and walked over to him.  "Are you Samantha's brother?" she demanded.  He nodded yes.  She peered down at him and said, "You have some big shoes to fill.  Good luck."  He relates this now and pride shines in his eyes.  And he's a damn fine writer himself.  Check out his blog sometime.

I've heard things about Mrs. Sleigh since I left school.  There was a rumor she had been committed to a mental institution.  Then Jason and I heard she had passed.  I wish I knew.  I've tried to find her but I quickly realized I didn't know enough about her to really make a good effort.  But, I have everything she taught me in my tool box.  I have that as her legacy.

So, on a day when I read about the abuse at a New York school and am reminded of the same abuses being uncovered at Los Angeles schools, I want to celebrate a teacher who, some thirty years later, is still an inspiration to this writer, author, girl.  Thanks Mrs. Sleigh.  Thanks for teaching me to write.


  1. I can barely remember any of my high school teachers. Of course that was back when we used a stick and wrote on clay tablets.
    The part about if you didn't want to read it no one else would hits home. I guess that's why I don't mind doing edits to my books. I love them to much.

  2. Great post Samantha! It brings back memories of my school days!

  3. That is truly inspiring!
    What is your brother's blog?