“I got these rocks from the beach over the summer. I want you to each come up and take the rock that calls to you. Then, we will decorate them.” I looked around Mrs. Wirth’s fifth grade classroom. An easel stood in front of the blackboard. There was a large pad of white paper, which hung on the easel, and on the paper there was a drawing of a crescent moon with a Shel Silverstein quote written neatly and deliberately next to it. A clothesline hung from wall to wall. The bucket of rocks was in front of the room, on the floor, waiting for us to make our choices.
When it’s my turn, I go up to the front of the classroom and pick through the bucket. I come up with an oval shaped rock, glittering silver and black, and take it back to my desk.
“Decorate them however you like for the next twenty minutes, and then we’ll talk.”
I write my name, ‘e r i n,’ on the rock, my markers cut up from the grainy surface. I draw a rainbow around my name, and I place it on my desk, awaiting further instruction.
“These will be our paperweights.”
“Let’s all decide on a career. Pick any career you’d like to have, and that will be a major focus for you this year.” I knew right away what I wanted, staring at my Lisa Frank folder with smiling dolphins looking back at me. A marine biologist. Every morning we had to write in our career journals, a special project that would take the whole year. I took my new vocation very seriously, diligently writing each morning about my life as a marine biologist, studying dolphins and turtles, handing in my reports on time, always.
That year we made travel brochures. I chose the Belize and focused on the wildlife.
We read poetry by Silverstein, and wrote our own. Mrs. Wirth read us chapters from House on Mango Street, and assigned us to write memoirs in class.
I didn’t sleep much that year. I was up late with poems and ideas swirling around in my head. One night, a persistent poem would not stop replaying in my mind until I wrote it down, sneaking in the darkness of my bedroom so my mother would not hear me and know I was awake.
When will my dreams,
Come up from the depth of their valley,
And soar into reality,
To penetrate into the truth?
When I went to school the next day, I showed it to Mrs. Wirth. “This is beautiful! I’m going to hang it up on the wall with our Founding Fathers projects. Is that okay?”
Later that week was Parent’s day.
“Did you see the poem I wrote, mom?”
“You wrote that? I thought it was a quote from a book you read.”
Mrs. Wirth nurtured my writing. When I wrote a short story for an assignment, she worked with me on structure and hooking the audience. “What if we started the story in the middle of the action?” Whether I was interested in writing mystery, adventure, or about my “career” as a marine biologist, Mrs. Wirth and her hand drawn Shel Silverstein posters were cheering me on.
Before and after Mrs. Wirth, I was blessed with great, kind teachers. But without a doubt, I would not be the reader and writer I am today without her. Without her feeding my mind with poetry, memoir, writing tips, and the freedom to be who I wanted to be –whether a marine biologist or a writer, I would have given up two years later when my English teacher was failing me. I would have given up on college when I had a disastrous first semester.
Mrs. Wirth gave me the confidence to succeed. Years later, I was with a friend, and mentioned my class. “I had Mrs. Wirth too, the year after you! She became the principal of the high school, you know.” I didn’t . I had moved during the summer after her class, to a new district, my career notebook, Belize flyer, and other work lost in the shuffle of a move and parents who were loving, but not sentimental about school assignments, or their kids’ aspirations.
Thank you, Mrs. Wirth. You live up to your name.