BootsnAll Travel Network

Great teachers and mentors

The work of a great teacher is not to do but to see: to see where a student is going before the student does; and to en-courage the student to keep moving in her own (authentic) direction, whatever that may mean or cost. My first grade teacher was Agnes Grinstead Anderson, in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. (I’ve chosen a link to an article written about her by a high school student; I think she’d like that.) Agnes taught me how to read in 1951, and she lived just one Mississippi thicket away from where I lived with my mother, step-father, and baby sister. Sometimes I ran away from the nightmares of my house, plunged through the briars and the undergrowth to Mrs. Anderson’s house, and hid there. Her daughter, Leif, was a year older than I and was my first childhood friend, but it was not Leif I went to visit. Agnes was my genie, my inspirer. Of course I didn’t know then that she was supporting her four children and a dysfunctional genius husband on a teacher’s salary and her own raw strength, or that the last thing she needed was someone else’s abused child hanging around her doorstep, but something in her shoulders, her eyes, and her words called me to my best self. I only knew that she saw promise in me, and her belief gave me hope.

I was in Agnes’s first grade class when I got rheumatic fever and was sent to a military hospital for nine months of solitary confinement. All my life, until this morning, I have thought that the illness gave me a necessary respite from my house of horrors and did much to shape my imagination and my spirit. But this morning I received an email that gives me a hint that perhaps I was somehow essentially the person I am now by the time I met Agnes, even before the illness.

By the time I came out of the hospital, my family had moved away from Ocean Springs, and I lost Agnes, but I found her again in 1973, when I was pregnant, single, and living alone without health insurance in New Orleans, working at three part-time jobs so I could pay for the baby’s delivery. Agnes became my friend and genie again, and once again she saw where I was headed. This morning I received an email from my friend Christopher, who is among many other things, Walter Anderson’s biographer. Christopher was reading Agnes’s diary and found her saying in the 1970s, after one of our visits: “[Kendall’s] unhappiness has taken on both maturity and harmony. She is a … [illegible] one with all her furious and unpremeditated actions. She has attained appreciation for the very act of living.” I love her vision of unhappiness maturing and becoming harmonious–I would never have put it that way, but my belief that it’s possible to build a joyful life on the scar tissue of our past is the basis of the work I would like to do with Paula: interviewing women in Argentina who have built lives after imprisonment and torture. Powerful interconnections: those women were being tortured in the very years when I was nursing Seth on the swing hung from a swamp oak in the woods by Agnes’s house.

If anything has changed since then, it is only that my furious actions are now endlessly, thoughtfully, meticulously premeditated (as Stephen complains about in his comment to my post on the authentic life). Perhaps pausing to think is the only “wisdom” my years have brought me. I go on acting furiously and as wildly as possible, but I do THINK about it all–not with torment or regret, but with amused and delighted wonder. Such things may be!

This morning, after I composed myself, I dug out the only letter I still have, of the many Agnes wrote to me in those years before email. Her letter is dated Monday, July 8th, 1974. Seth was then ten months old, and I was a graduate student in English, supporting myself by teaching freshman composition (good god, I’ve been doing this for 33 years). She writes, “I am so proud of you.” Those are the words we all wait for. Just that. I am so proud of you. She goes on, speaking to the twenty-nine-year-old Kendall in 1974: “I think you have worked things out against all manner of odds–just as you did in First Grade long ago–And I want you to have the quiet harmony in your life that will bring, perhaps not ecstasy, but the richer, deeper reward of peace. . . . Never let the machine entangle you to the extent of feeling that it will not go without you.”

She was talking to herself as well as to me in that last, wise line. At that time she was the manager of the complicated Shearwater Pottery complex. People knew her only as the great artist’s widow, or as the late Pat Anderson’s sister. She was called Mrs. Anderson or “Sissy.” I called her Agnes and begged her to write HER story. She was going blind–not just cataracts but glaucoma–and I got her a typing book and convinced her that she could type her story; she didn’t have to write it all by hand. And she did. It took her almost a decade to do it, and she found a sensitive editor in Patty Black, or her great mass of pages would never have become the splendid book it is. While she was writing her story, she was often entangled by the machine, but she broke free and did it: Approaching the Magic Hour is her story, even though the publicity still says it’s her story about HIM. It’s not. It’s her story. It’s the story of what it’s like to live in the shadow of artists whose grandiose egos and manic periods of creativity dwarf the merely human being who supports them. It’s a great book.

On the more mundane level, I surprised myself more than usual today. When the alarm went off at 6 a.m., I just didn’t feel like going to school. I lay there and thought about taking a mental health day off. Basho, however, would have none of my laziness and began slapping my cheek and meowing by my ear. I got up with a vague feeling of anxiety because I just wasn’t ready for it to be Monday. I wondered what I had DONE with the weekend, and how it was that I hadn’t gotten around to the grocery shopping and vacuuming the floor. I glanced at my course plans and felt inadequately prepared, ate breakfast, and opened my pill box to take Monday’s pills. The box rattled, as if I hadn’t taken the Sunday pills yet. Indeed, all the Sunday pills were still in their little box. Then suddenly I realized it was only SUNDAY! I had a whole day extra! Oh joy. I was so happy I did a little dance in the kitchen. A whole day, given to me as if from heaven. What a wonder! Right after that I got the email with Agnes’s diary entry in it. Today I am even more in love with being alive than I was when Agnes made her observations. And look: a whole day! It’s like having an eighth day in this week. Every minute of this day has been “approaching the magic hour.” Wonderful.

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2 responses to “Great teachers and mentors”

  1. Nacho says:

    I came too late to this entry, but it is a balm no matter when one reads it. What a touching, wonderful entry Kendall. Thanks for sharing it. Truly. What a gift. I’m impressed at your life Kendall. It sounds so rich, so full of texture, and full of grace as well. This is an amazingly touching teacher’s story. Submit it to a collection for such stories. Thank you Kendall.

  2. admin says:

    As always, you honor me. I’d rather people read Agnes’s autobiography than anything I might write about her. Get the book if you can. It’s just amazing, especially for all of us who live with, or have lived with, people who are labeled with any kind of “mental disorder.” What Agnes does so brilliantly is just tell what happened: no judgments, no labels, just the raw truth. And then the rest of us get tears of recognition in our yes: yes, it was like that. Yes, it’s like that.

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