As an adolescent I loved school. I loved it for its routine and its predictability. It was opposite to my home life in every way. My mother’s nervous breakdowns and the bizarre behaviour she displayed ensured that home was chaotic and full of turmoil.
As a child and adolescent I didn’t understand why my mother behaved the way she did - staying up late at night to clean the house, believing that she had special powers from God and could speak to him, and making a commitment to men she hardly knew on the spur of the moment and up-ending my life so I had to change schools and homes - all I knew was that she was different to other mothers. She needed my help and so I missed school to stay home and ensure she didn’t drive by herself when she was in the embrace of her manic episodes.
That was how I ended up in my high school counsellor’s office when I was sixteen-years-old and my life was transformed forever by Miss Meadowcroft. A week after I explained to Miss Meadowcroft about how Mum behaved and looked when she had a nervous breakdown, Miss Meadowcroft handed me a pamphlet titled Manic Depression, which more recently has been termed Bi Polar.
A week after I explained to Miss Meadowcroft about how Mum behaved and looked when she had a nervous breakdown, Miss Meadowcroft handed me a pamphlet titled Manic Depression, which more recently has been termed Bi Polar.
Once we had a name and a list of symptoms we were able to take control as a family. No longer were we caught unaware by my mother’s illness. Now we could recognise the symptoms of her mania before she had a full blown episode. We learnt to look out for signs if she was restless or unable to sleep, or her eyes became glassy, or she started talking too fast for her tongue to keep up.
Now I’m an author and when my memoir Things Nobody Knows But Me was launched, Gael Meadowcroft was in the audience as I read the prologue which featured our counselling session.
Teachers play such a large part in a young person’s life and there are moments, big and small, that remain in our hearts forever. Emily Gale, author of young adult novel I Am With The Lanterns, remembers her English teacher Mrs McNamara, who taught her when she was 14 made an impression about the way she spoke about literature, particularly poetry, with passion. Emily reflects on her experience of high school “I was not a very happy person at this time in my life and found school challenging in some ways, which I kept hidden, but I absolutely loved her lessons and I could feel my confidence grow under her eye.” Mrs McNamara was the first person Emily contacted when her debut novel was published.
Teachers play such a large part in a young person’s life and there are moments, big and small, that remain in our hearts forever.
Alice Pung, memoirist and young adult author of Laurinda, remembers her English teacher, Mrs Astbury, “who was incredibly kind to me when I was in Year 11. She drove me home once after school, when I was depressed. I realise now how young she was back then, and that might have enhanced her empathy towards young adults who often feel powerless at times, against the world at large.” As the daughter of immigrant parents who didn’t have access to English it was the English teachers who provided Alice access to new worlds through literature, an experience I too can relate to.
Sometimes the relationship comes full circle. Vikki Petraitis, true crime author of 14 books, started her career as a primary school teacher and now is a high school teacher. In her very first year of teaching, there was a girl in Year 6 who wanted to write a novel. Vikki and the student talked a lot about writing because writing a novel was her dream too. “Recently I have reconnected with the student – who is now in her early 40s – and the two of us spend long hours together talking about writing. Ironically, we are both still working on our first novels.”
As an adult I still love school. Now I work as a high school English teacher at my former high school. I am beginning to have former students visit me at school to reminisce about my days as a teacher. It is amazing the moments that made an impression, they speak of their memories of year seven camp, moments of hilarity in the classroom, the memoir piece that I mentored them in writing that helped them discover their love for writing.
And this relationship is not one-sided. There are so many moments when students touched my heart. A former year 9 English student in my first year of teaching who boosted my fledgling confidence when he called me a specialist English teacher. The year seven class who threw me a surprise birthday party and then gave me a birthday card a year later when I wasn’t their teacher. Teachers impact lives, and so do the students we teach.
Amra Pajalic is a high school teacher and author of memoir Things Nobody Knows But Me. You can visit her website here.