For most people, their memories of high school are marked with friends, parties, football games, dances, and sweethearts. Not me. In the entire four years I attended three dances, went to no parties, made it to a couple of football games, didn’t really have any friends, and my whole two sweethearts didn’t go to my school. Though I didn’t show it, I was alone and very lonely. However, there were a handful of teachers who gave me a little room to dream, maybe even believe. One of them was my English teacher, Beverly Koepp.
For the most part my teachers didn’t push much. I was smart, no doubt about it – but I was not engaged. I didn’t have that spark the other students had, the social energy that drew them to each other, made them interested in their high school conversations, that pulled people into their orbit. I would watch, wondering what it felt like to belong.
Even the not so cool kids had each other. I had no one and even the teachers who reached out eventually just stopped and let me go on my way, alone. I was making good grades so I was doing “well.” My social abilities were a low priority. Terms like “loner” and “introvert” were used to describe me. While accurate, these labels left a gaping hole in my human interactions – and my humanity.
What they didn’t know is that I was met with the same frustration in every aspect of my life, especially at home. I didn’t even feel like I belonged there. I really was a loner, an introvert and I didn’t think, act, or present myself like the other kids.
Writing became my friend, my passion, the one thing I had to do or I would just die. It was the one thing that I knew would never leave me, bully me, or abandon me. I ached to pursue my one true love, but most of the adults in my life were quick to discourage it – as a career anyway. I am sure they thought they were doing it in my best interest, but each time they suggested an “alternative career” and discouraged me from a writing career, a little bit more of me seemed to die.
Don’t get me wrong, they didn’t do it to intentionally quash a young girl’s dreams of being a writer. They were not being cruel. They thought they were being practical. They thought they were protecting me. See, I never was like the other kids. I was the social misfit; the outcast. I never really fit in with my peers, was definitely not like the other kids, and no one – my family included – really knew what to do with me.
It would be many years until I sat across from that doctor with the kind face who finally named the part of me that made me so very different, so very alone – Asperger’s Syndrome. To find out I was on the autism spectrum answered so many questions; my world finally made sense. But that is another story for another time, although it makes the one I am telling you now all the more remarkable. This incredible teacher, as far as I know, did not know I was autistic yet she did so many things right. Things she did as I sat in her classroom helped to lay a foundation for my success.
In those school years, especially high school, even I was wondering what was wrong with me. Perhaps Mrs. Koepp sensed I had a secret that even I didn’t yet know. I doubt she suspected autism; it wasn’t as well-known as it is now, unless the patient was a profound case. Still, she treated me in such a way that my different way of thinking, the very things that were autistic in me, were celebrated and used. She never said I wasn’t trying hard enough. She never said I was lazy. As far as I can tell, she was never even frustrated with me. She never asked me to change, only to use what I had, what I was, to its very best. She pushed me to be the best me possible, whatever that looked like.
Best of all, she let me write. Her comments were very direct, honest, and thoughtful. I remember writing something once and she commented that it was “dark” but at the same time, she gave me guidance for exploring that darkness, bringing it to life. She encouraged me to explore the darkness of my solitude, of not fitting in, of being an outsider, and she taught me how to put those feelings into words on a page.
I am still in touch with Mrs. Koepp today and she is still a teacher. She loves every one of “her kids” and celebrates their unique differences. I had some good teachers throughout my academic life, but she was one of the best. She took the time to find out what touched me and inspired me. She encouraged me in ways that she likely doesn’t even realize.
I’ve always hating being singled out and public praise would make me cringe. She had a special finesse though that made it feel good. She would hold one of my papers and tell the class how well it was written, giving the high points, but her voice would always be so matter of fact like it was no surprise to her. Many people, well-meaning as they may be, often give enthusiastic public praise in a tone that implies they can’t believe you actually accomplished whatever it is you did well, to me anyway.
Mrs. Koepp never did that though. She never acted surprised and I always felt that she expected me to do well so each time I tried to be just a little better – because I knew that was what she expected from me. She had me raising the bar for myself because I wanted to meet her expectations of me even though she never once directly told me that she had any – I just knew. As a result, I started expecting more of myself.
Today I am a full time writer. I’ve written books and articles. I write for clients and help them market their businesses. I have certain standards that I have set for myself, standards that were first formed as I sat in an English classroom as a shy, awkward, outcast, withdrawn teenage girl.
Yes, Mrs. Koepp taught me English and I am a better writer today because of it. She taught me much more than that though. She was one of the first and few teachers to see potential in the weird kid sitting in her classroom – and who turned the mirror around so I could see it for myself. Not every student has a clear cut reason for being who they are or for doing what they do, but each one has a story. Good teachers accept it but great teachers teach those students to embrace it and use it. That is what Mrs. Koepp did for me. She was a true blessing. She let me dare to dream and today I am a much better me because of it.