I’ve worn a lot of hats since I first began writing at age 8, when my third grade language arts teacher, Marcelyn Hellbusch Shadow, assigned me to start keeping a journal. By commission, I’ve been a storyteller, essayist, high school journalist, historian, correspondent, and technical writer. I’ve drafted dozens of informational newsletters during a job in city government, and occasionally made a few spare dollars as a calligrapher–writing in the most literal sense.
From the beginning, I’ve found a way to put my personal stamp on whatever I was being asked to write. My very first journal entry contained a haiku, though none was required. At the time, I would’ve been bashful about calling myself a poet or even a writer–but that’s what I’ve always been. I’ve been a perfectionist from the beginning, too. I could never just do a mediocre job. If I was writing, I was putting myself onto the page. It had to be right because people would see it, judge it, and they would be judging my soul. Those are my roots. They make me who I am as a writer, for better and for worse.
After I started writing this post, I got to thinking about Ms. Shadow. I hadn’t spoken to her in more than 13 years. The last time I saw her, I’d stopped by my old middle school when I was hugely pregnant with my oldest child (who will be twelve at the end of this month). So this morning, I did an internet search for her, only to discover that she passed away in December 2011, after a 5-year battle with cancer.
As I read over her obituary, then clicked through the first two dozen links generated by my search, I was astonished at how little information exists (at least on the internet) to document a life that touched mine on such a profound level. One thing I did find was a donation of school notebooks for journals made to school children by my friend Kim Douglas, a fellow writer and student of Ms. Shadow. Kim commented that she started keeping a journal as an assignment from Ms. Shadow and dedicated the donation to her memory.
In my own small way, I want to dedicate what I’m doing to Ms. Shadow. She was my language arts teacher from third through eighth grades and saw in me what I was too young, too self-conscious to see: the promise of talent. She fanned the flames of my love of reading and writing, directed me to excellent books, and held me to high standards on the writing I did for her classes.
So many times I chafed against her requirements, procrastinated and often failed to turn in my assignments. She never gave up on me, she kept after me, and gave me more chances than I deserved. She also went above and beyond the call of educator and saw the struggles and loneliness in my personal life. Ms. Shadow became a friend, as well as a teacher. She gave me rides home from school when I needed to stay late, took me to a Ren fair, and published one of my poems in an article she wrote about student poetry.
When I was in sixth grade, she gave me the opportunity to create a book of poetry and attend Seattle Pacific University’s young authors conference–a high point in my early writing life. In eighth grade, Ms. Shadow took me to a poetry workshop at the University of Washington, where I listened to a lecture by Maya Angelou and afterwards met her.
I know that mine was only one of hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of lives that Marcelyn Shadow touched in the 33 years that she taught. She was human, flawed, funny, brilliant, outspoken, patient, dynamic–and oh, how she loved her Starbucks coffee.
God bless you, Ms. Shadow. You taught me to be a writer and to believe that I’m one–two different but equally important things. I am, and ever will be, in your debt.