Of pulleys and buttonholes and light

There are two more names to add to the long list of luminaries whose lights went out in 2016:  Ann Marchbank and Melba McConnaughey.

I know. Most of you don’t know either of these women, but they were famous to me in the way Naomi Shihab Nye so eloquently aspires to fame in one of my favorite poems:

I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,
but because it never forgot what it could do.

In 1979, I was a bit of a lost soul.

No, that’s not quite right. I wasn’t exactly lost. I pretty much knew where I was–walking a sketchy path that, in spite of its obvious dangers, seemed would take me to a better place than the one I’d been. Luckily for me, Mrs. Marchbank and Mrs. McConnaughey steered me off of it.

I don’t know if they knew the peril I was courting or if they ever knew they helped save me. I suspect they didn’t. I suspect they were just doing their jobs, teaching me and bringing opportunities my way, the way teachers do. I suspect they didn’t know that my dad was an active alcoholic, or that I was far too aware of what shaky ground my parents’ marriage was listing on, or that my whole family was struggling hard to care for my severely autistic brother who hadn’t even received an accurate diagnosis, much less anything that could be called adequate support. I am sure Mrs. Marchbank, my 9th grade English teacher, didn’t know that I sometimes drank in the girls’ bathroom before school (because school was “so boring”). I’m equally sure that Mrs. McConnaughey didn’t know I struggled with depression throughout high school, flirting often with what we now call suicidal ideation. I’m guessing they didn’t know how much I battled every single day with fear and loneliness and self-loathing, or what a difference it made that they helped me see myself as a person who had value and potential.

Mrs. Marchbank was the matchmaker who hooked me up with Shakespeare and grammar and poetry, kindling life-long love affairs with each. She championed my work, entering it in contests and telling me she was sure that one day she’d walk into a bookstore and see a book with my name on the cover. When a poem of mine was published in a national magazine, she whooped with excitement and joy–and she was not, generally speaking, a whooper. It was how I knew it was a big deal. She gently teased my friends and me about our obsessive need to check our appearance in mirrors, letting us know that there were more important things for us to care about. As I left the halls of Sylvester Junior High, she handed me over to Mrs. McConnaughey at the high school. During spring forecasting, she told me I needed to take Mrs. McConnaughey’s classes because “she’s the head of the English department, and I want her to know you.”

Mrs. McConnaughey, who died on December 16, was a force. She’d long left her native Arkansas for the northwest, but she never lost her accent. She was both genteel and formidable in the way I’ve come to know that Southern women can be. My first real memory of her is from the day after the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. She was furious that the election was called before polls had closed on the west coast, and she was furious that he’d won. I was pretty sure she shouldn’t be sharing so much of her own political beliefs in class like that, but I became curious about why she would, and from that curiosity grew my own political awareness and philosophy. Later that year, I took a class from her called “Semantics and Logic,” which had a Matrix-like impact on me: she revealed the codes of language and argument, giving me personal and political power I hadn’t even known existed. It had everything to do with why I later became an English teacher myself.

Being human, Mrs. McConnaughey was not a perfect teacher. A friend once told me that I was the only one she allowed to really challenge her ideas in class. Others teased me about being her pet, and I know she gave me special favors. Our high school had what they called tennis shoe registration for classes, where we’d walk around the gym and pick up registration cards for the classes we wanted. If all the cards were taken for a class before we got to it, we were out of luck. As a sophomore trying to get into an English class for seniors, chances are I wasn’t going to get the card I wanted. I will never forget coming to the front of the line and watching Mrs. McConnaughey pull out a registration card for me that she’d hidden behind a curtain, or the “hey!” of injustice that exploded from the kid standing behind me in line as he realized what she’d done.

As an educator myself, I know that wasn’t fair. But I also know that sometimes, some kids really need us to show them that we think they matter. I was one of those kids, and she did that for me. When I was a senior, she spent her lunch period every day shepherding me through an independent study of poetry. “I am so sorry we do not have anything in our curriculum to teach you what you need to know about poetry,” she said, “and you just can’t go off to college without knowing more about it.” It was clear that the independent study wasn’t an option, but a requirement. I would sit in the class she had before lunch, reading and writing on my own while she taught the rest of the students, and then during her lunch she would talk with me about the poems I’d read. Like Mrs. Marchbank, she entered my writing in contests and expressed unwavering belief in the importance of my work and my ability to do it.

It is because of both women that I became a high school teacher myself. Although I entertained the idea of teaching in higher ed, I knew that where teachers had mattered most for me was long before college. If it weren’t for those two, I might never have made it there. A 9th grade girl who was drinking in the bathroom before school and throwing herself into one ill-advised infatuation after another needed champions to show her that she had value that wasn’t to be found in a bottle or a boy. She needed people to love her, and they were those people for me.

I’ve been out of the classroom for 8 years now, coaching teachers rather than working directly with students. I wish that during my years there, I’d better understood what I know now–that a teacher’s most important contribution isn’t necessarily what they are teaching students about a subject, but what they are teaching students about themselves. I would have worried less about the finer points of my lessons and more about the rough and tender edges of my students.

When I coach teachers, I encourage them to be willing to take some risks, to be OK with small failures that might be a necessary part of the process of learning how to create classrooms that are more relevant, rigorous, and safe for all students.

“We aren’t brain surgeons,” I tell them. “No one’s going to die if we mess up a lesson.”

It’s true. No one’s doing to die if we mess up a lesson. But that doesn’t mean teachers don’t have the power to save lives.On the dark and deeply troubling path we’re walking now, that’s something I hope all the teachers I know will remember. I hope that all of us who work with and for youth, in schools or out, will be famous in the ways of pulleys and buttonholes, never forgetting what it is we can do.

I am so thankful for these two teachers who never did.

24 thoughts on “Of pulleys and buttonholes and light

  1. Kari Wagner Hoban says:

    First, you rocked late-70’s, early-80’s hair.
    I mean ROCKED it.

    Second, thank God for teachers like these. Honestly.
    I know a really good teacher when I see one, as you do.
    I had a Mrs. Marchbank too only her name is Mrs. Pierce and I wrote about her as well.
    She passed away years ago but I never will forget her and I won’t let others as forget her either.
    Kari Wagner Hoban recently posted…Why #Netflix Is Making Me Absolutely Unmotivated in 2017 #StreamTeamMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      I remember that piece about your English teacher. <3

      And yes, I had the mother of all feathered 'do's. I will never admit how long it took me to get ready every morning. 🙂

  2. Diane says:

    Wow, this is a fabulous piece…. I too had a great English teacher when I was a senior in high school. He was a gay black man who railed against cliches for the entire year in honors English IV, but went crazy with love and admiration for our creativity when we jointly hatched a plan to use as many cliches as we could in our final papers for him. He must have known it took more work to pull that off than it would have to just write normal papers. I will never forget him.

  3. Kate says:

    What a lovely tribute, Rita.

    And what an amazing poem. Just think if everyone wanted to be buttonhole famous instead of Instagram famous….the things we could do.

    AND I agree with Kari. Your hair is PERFECTION!
    Kate recently posted…Not All the SocksMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      Oh, these days I would so love for everyone to aspire to buttonhole fame. Maybe I’d regain some of my faith in humanity.

      That hair. Man, I don’t know what to think about that. It was rather gloriously awful, wasn’t it?

  4. Suzanne says:

    I’ve followed you for a while and never commented before. I had a hard time in high school, too. My baby brother died of leukemia when I was a freshman. It was hard. My mother went into a deep depression – I found out the hard way that runs in my family. My English teachers kept me going, too. They challenged me (and my classmates) in a powerful way. Anyway, the reason I really wanted to comment is that when I was a freshman, my school offered some mini-courses during the last grading period. I was lucky enough to have a poetry workshop with Namoi Shihab. Mind you, this was in 1972 and she was not very well known outside San Antonio yet. Since then, I’ve had the chance to meet her and listen to her do readings and speak several times. I always tell her how thankful I was that she was there to show me a way to have a voice during a time I was hurting.

    • Rita says:

      I am so sorry to hear about the losses you endured during high school. When I became a teacher, I realized just how many students had struggles that were hidden to most of their peers. What I so appreciated about my teachers was that they helped us by challenging us. By pushing us and showing us how what they were teaching could lead to good things for us. It was an indirect kind of help, but so important.

      Shihab Nye is one of my favorite poets. I would love to have had a chance to take a workshop with her. My senior year, Mrs. McConnaughey arranged for a group of us to see William Stafford, who was speaking at a local community college. I knew he was a big deal, but the afternoon we went I was extremely sleepy and I had such a hard time staying awake. His voice was so soft, and the room was warm, and I just didn’t know enough then to find much connection to what he was talking about. To make matters worse, I was in my cheerleading uniform. A couple times I caught him looking at me with a funny expression–I’m sure because my head kept jerking and I’m pretty sure I was visibly fighting sleep. I was mortified, thinking he probably thought I was a shallow, bubble-headed cheerleader, and I was terrified that she would see me falling asleep and be disappointed in me! It was his son, Kim, who later introduced me to Shihab Nye’s work, after I’d begun teaching.

  5. Christine says:

    Mrs. Marchbank and Melba McConaughey were legends and what you felt for them and what they did for you is how I felt about Mrs. Ferguson. We had some amazing teachers, even if we did not know it at the time. I am always amazed at the similarities in our early life path and chosen profession. Thanks for the always thoughtful words and a touching tribute I know they would “Whoop” about.

    • Rita says:

      I never got to have Mrs. Ferguson. I was really interested in debate, but I couldn’t fit it in my schedule. And I think I remember feeling that I’d probably never be as good at it as you. 🙂 We did have some amazing teachers. I don’t think we could have known it at the time. It was all we knew. Having been in so many schools and seen so many teachers at work in the years since, I know now that we were fortunate.

  6. Jeff Eaton says:

    Hi Rita
    Thanks I think it is great how you are writing and sharing and thinkIng out loud in your notebook. Mrs McCon. was important to me too. She opened something up about writing and learning.
    Keep writing… Happy New Year

  7. Marian says:

    This is such a beautiful tribute, Rita. And I LOVE the pulley and buttonhole poem — it ties in with and affirms something I’ve slowly, slowly been coming to accept … that the small actions of noticing, of holding-together and being-there and providing-support ARE important, that they’re not merely lists of things that one should preface with the word “just”, but that they’re oftentimes vital, and can be life-changing. This affirmation — coming three days before Christmas — feels like a gift. Thank you, Rita.

    • Rita says:

      I agree with you, Marian. I know it is important for us to have individuals who do the big things for us–the ones who lead movements and head nations and make profound discoveries and create great works of art. But it is also important to do small, local acts, too. The small things might not change many lives. They might only change one life. But if everyone had just a few people doing those things for them, this world would be such a better place, wouldn’t it?

      I hope you had a wonderful holiday with your family.

  8. Tina says:

    Wonderful tribute to our English teachers. Rob still uses a William Stafford poem in his English 10 classes. Hope you and your kids have a wonderful break!

    • Rita says:

      I hope you have a wonderful break, too! William Stafford is a favorite–I think it was Kim Stafford who introduced me to Shihab Nye, more than 20 years ago. Which poem does he use?

  9. Jenell McGee says:

    I wish Ann could have read this and I will share it with her daughters and Ed Marchbank. Also Don McCon….. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    Jenell McGee, HHS Teacher 1974 – 2004.

  10. Mandy (Marchbank) ravet says:

    I just happened to stumble across this the other day, and it was wonderful timing. I had just driven to Ocean Shores for my “Aunt” Melba’s funeral. My dad, a pall-bearer, had returned with me to Ellensburg for Christmas. I was feeling rather down in the dumps, as I felt the scab being ripped off the 3 month old wound we were so desperately trying to heal. To rub salt in the wound, my Aunt Melba had often been my biggest cheerleader, and along with her husband Don, a great support to my dad in the loss of my mom. What now.? Being the baby Marchbank, even at 44, I have not really ever been the “shot-caller.” If you knew my mom, you knew she was in charge, even battling that wretched disease. Now put in a position to carry on without someone who made such an influence in my life, I was feeling powerless. And then I read this piece. This piece reminded me that Marchbank women are strong. Reading this prompted me to think about how she wouldn’t sit around and feel sorry for herself. It reminded me that my mom had championed me through disappointments, disasters, and yes…even divorce. She reveled in my accomplishments, amongst her favorite would be her grandson, and beamed with pride at hearing my own teaching stories. My mom was great at reminding me that life was the best drama, comedy, and adventure story you were ever really going to experience…and if you were going to be a part of it, you might as well be the writer…the one in charge of how your story goes. So, I picked myself up, dusted myself off, and went to finish wrapping presents and enjoy Christmas with the ones I love. And for that, I thank you.

    • Rita says:

      Thank you so much for sharing this with me. There’s some poetry in this, that your mother helped me become the kind of writer I am, so that you would read something that would help you through your grieving during this first holiday season without her.

      I never knew that she’d been ill or that she’d passed away until I learned about Mrs. McConnaughey. I got to visit both of them about 10 years ago. At the time, I was struggling with teaching. I remember asking your mom if she ever wished she’d done something different. She said there were other things she might have done, but nothing she’d like more. I remember her asking me, “Don’t you just love teaching?” and looking puzzled when I admitted that sometimes I didn’t and I wasn’t sure that I still wanted to. I love your description of your mom as the one in charge. She was always in charge of her classroom, that’s for sure–but in the best way. She just had a quiet authority about her. I still remember one day we were in class and reading quietly, and I decided that would be a good time to scrunch up a pom pom (to make it fluffier, you know). I was sitting there, reading and scrunching away, when I somehow became aware that I was making a lot of noise in that otherwise silent room. I looked up to see your mother looking pointedly at me. She didn’t say a word, just shook her head slightly. I was mortified, but not because she did anything to shame me. I remember her being that way with all of us.

      I know that I met you once. It was Christmas break and I was at a fabric store and I ran into your mom with you and your sister. It was so strange to me to see a teacher outside of school! I remember that I thought her two little girls were quite cute. I knew of you before that. When I was in 8th grade I took Creative Writing from her, and one of our projects was to make picture books for her daughter’s first grade class. That must have been for your class. I still remember the one I wrote, about a rat.

      I am so sorry for your family’s loss. I never had a class from your dad, but everyone I knew who did liked him very much. Both of your parents were kind and good teachers. I’m guessing that you must be, too. I wish I’d kept in touch with both your mom and Mrs. McConnaughey. Not long after that visit 10 years ago, my own marriage was ending, and not long after that I left the classroom. First I was busy just dealing with all of that, and then I felt embarrassed (because I felt like I’d failed at something so important and had let so much time pass without communicating). I wish I’d done more to let them know how very much they meant to me.

      Wishing you the best, and I’m glad that you were able to find joy in the holiday.

  11. Laura Millsaps says:

    I’ve read this twice. Didn’t get through it either time without tears. I’m coming at it as a parent, knowing that there have been many, many times when teachers, principals, and some other dedicated school staffers carried my burdens as a parent of an autism spectrum child when I just couldn’t, or lacked what he really needed, which was professional guidance. I’m deeply, emotionally grateful to them. I can’t imagine where my child would be today without them.
    Laura Millsaps recently posted…A Note to the Republic, for which I Stand.My Profile

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