There was a monk — a splendid sort;
I saw that his sleeves were edged at the cuff with gray fur, and that the finest in the land; and to fasten his hood under his chin he had a very intricate pin made of gold; there was a love knot in the bigger end.
His head was bald and shone like glass, and his face did too as if he had been anointed.
When I was seventeen, I was a monk. Not a proper monk with vows, but I played one in our class re-enactment of The Canterbury Tales. As my co-monk and I donned our robes and hoods, we tried to practice our lines, but complained more than we rehearsed. The pin was sticking me. The robe was bulky and unflattering. The rope belt kept falling off. I wanted to hide under my desk until the day was over. Our teacher had said, “Twenty years from now, you may not remember much about The Canterbury Tales, but you’ll always remember the part you played.” She was right on both counts, with this post being proof of that. Turns out, she was right about a lot of things.
Mrs. Sutton taught British literature to high school seniors. This was a difficult assignment for any teacher, I realize now. We were sassy and pompous and thought we knew everything. After all we were seventeen years old, about to be unleashed on the world at large. When I received my class card at the beginning of the school year and saw her name listed next to literature, I groaned. Mrs. Sutton had a reputation for being one of the toughest teachers in the school and what I needed was to coast through the year so I could prepare for college entrance exams and applications. There would be no such thing on Mrs. Sutton’s watch. Day one: “You will work hard in my class, or you will not be in my class for long.”
Mrs. Sutton both scared me and fascinated me. She was beautiful in the way she carried herself with confidence. She kept her hair short and wore her reading glasses on a chain around her neck. This made her seem ancient, but now I know she had only been in her forties. She was always impeccably dressed, wearing chunky jewelry to balance her tall frame. Mrs. Sutton was an African American version of Bea Arthur.
After we had plowed through Macbeth and Hamlet, Pride and Prejudice and A Tale of Two Cities, she’d asked us what all of those books had in common. One classmate remarked that each author was able to portray accurately the human condition. (Brown noser, he was!)
“How do you think they became so keenly attuned?” she asked.
Silence all around.
Then she told us that she loved to people watch at the airport. She would often carry an empty suitcase and walk past the gates until she found a destination that appealed to her.* Today it might be Rome; tomorrow Rio. She asked herself, “What would it be like to be traveling to this place at this time?” Then she’d get out her journal, filling it with images that struck her as interesting: a little girl taking her first flight, a husband leaving on a long business trip, newlyweds off on their honeymoon. Mrs. Sutton chronicled emotions sweet and strange, sad and sappy. When the flight took off, she’d head home to sleep the night in her own bed and let the images swirl around in her mind.
After class, everyone discussed how Mrs. Sutton had gone completely mad. Who went to the airport, pretending to go somewhere? But I was enthralled. She was creating stories, and that was what I wanted to do. Mrs. Sutton made me realize that it was okay to be carried away by my curiosity. Because all stories begin with the question, “What would it be like if…?” Everything from page one to the end is the answer to that question.
“But ideas need space to grow,” she told us. “Pay attention. If you’re always talking or distracting yourself, you’re not listening. That’s how Austen and Dickens and Shakespeare and all the great authors were able to write about universal truths — they were keen observers.”
Mrs. Sutton had no idea what a profound influence she had on me that day. Years later, when my book was published, a local bookstore was hosting my reading and she came. For her, it seemed time had stood still since high school instead of the decades that had passed. She was as classy as ever. I tried to thank her for giving me the tools to do something that I enjoy, and I told her how much it meant that she had come. She said, “It’s okay. I know, dear,” but I’m not sure she really did because despite having written a book, I couldn’t find the words to thank her enough.
*Clearly, this was a long, long time ago.
** This post is in response to the Daily Prompt.
Who would you like to thank? Have you had the opportunity to thank him/her?
Have a great weekend, everyone!