Thursday, April 05, 2007

Women in my history, part two: teachers, leaders, mentors

I could tell you I purposefully saved this post for April just to show you that I think one month for women's history is insufficient. However, that would be a big fat lie. I have been both busy and bored, if that's possible. Anyway, what better way to overcome a little blogger's block than to gush about some cool women in my life?

My last women in my history post gave you the rundown on the mothers, grandmothers, sisters and daughter who have contributed to my life. Now I want to tell you about some women with whom I share no blood connection. I've run into some fairly famous women in my life -- but those connections have never been major for me. So as tempting as it might be to tell you about brief run-ins with Lavina Fielding Anderson or Susan Evans McCloud (neither of whom, I'm pretty sure, could distinguish me from Mother Eve in a lineup except by the fact that I am the one with the short hair who is not wearing a coat of skins) I'm going to tell you about some teachers, some leaders, some friends.

When I was in first grade, a series of events led my mother to pull me from the Ogden public schools and send me to Tree of Life Montessori School. This venerable institution -- maybe ten or twelve students total in a little, old, green house -- was run by Vera Eccles and taught by Deanna Olson. Deanna was the teacher I had been longing to love since I read "Ramona the Pest" a couple of years earlier. Young and pretty and positive, she was easy to idolize. Under their care, I spent my days in the early childhood room, self-directing to my heart's content. I learned the musical "Really Rosie" and played with clay. I read, a lot. This was utterly empowering -- my gifts and my style of learning were not just okay here, but great. The way I had been treated in the public school classroom was not acceptable. Only a few times since then have I had to stand up for myself against people who have not treated me right. But I have never had a problem doing that. Interestingly, if I remember this correctly, Mrs. Eccles had started the school as a way to stand up for one of her children who had struggled in the public school system. Learning was founded on respect at Tree of Life, although it was never presented in a boring "values" lesson. It was in the fabric of the place. Mrs. Eccles and Deanna were responsible for that.

Of course I had many other sweet teachers and learned plenty all the way through school. Primary, too. But we're going to fast forward to an influential church leader: Nancy, who was the Young Women president in our ward when I was a 12-14-year-old in Pittsburgh. I am in awe of what she gave to our little group. The time she spent. The hoagie sales and sleepovers and road trips (to the temple in D.C, to Palmyra and Kirtland, and to Lake Erie, just for fun) and weekly activities. The Sunday lessons. The drama we created with her as the calm eye of our hormonal hurricane. I don't know how she managed this. She had her own family and her own business, a thriving day care in her very lovely home. But I think I know why she did it. She loved the Lord and she loved His daughters. I am not as good as she was at managing it all. But now that I work in Young Women I feel the same love.

Around the same time, the art teacher in my middle school, whose name was something akin to Mr. Rear-end, sat on a table and broke it with his considerable weight. He also broke his tail bone. He had to stay flat on his back for something like six months. I'm not even kidding. At least that was the way the story went around the middle school. And we had the most wonderful long-term substitute ever. I'm sure I was not her very most promising student, and I don't really know why she invited me to the gallery opening of her then-current show. Maybe she invited everybody. But I think I was the only student there. I can't say this changed my life forever -- I didn't become an artist or even a particularly great connoisseur of art. But attending her opening made me feel incredibly special, grown-up and sophisticated, and I treasured the postcard invitation for many years. This teacher's name was Mary Culbertson-Stark. She just went by Mrs. Stark in school, and until right this evening I forgot the first part of her hyphenated name. A great flash of memory allowed a successful Google and a link for you. Looking at the work displayed there, I can see her work has changed a lot in the last 20 years, which is what I would expect and hope for anyone I like and respect ... but here is what I see as consistent: a really strong feminine presence, a little bit of whimsy, and a deeper undercurrent of questioning and searching. How cool to recognize a former teacher that way.

No list of influential women in my life would be complete without my high school English teacher. Sure, I had a few, but only one was The English Teacher, Oh Mighty Mama, Ms. Susan Stitham. She taught a course for sophomores called Analysis of Literature, and she taught AP English and Senior Seminar for seniors. I took all three. This woman talked incredibly fast, even when I'd just come to Alaska from the East. Was it a remnant of her own Eastern upbringing, or did she just have an incredibly large amount of stuff to say? Both. From her I learned the basics of the three-point essay, literary theory (and multiple theories), multiculturalism and the canon, grammar, vocabulary, journaling, managing big assignments. Honestly, I coasted halfway through an English major at BYU based on what I learned from her. Senior Seminar was titled "Ethics and Epidemics." We learned about the bubonic plague, the Irish potato famine and HIV/AIDS. (Odd and sad to remember how in the fall of 1991 we still believed a cure might be available within 5 years.) Lesbian herself, she subtly steered me to some gay literature -- May Sarton, to be specific -- knowing before I did that my brother was gay. She confronted some other Mormon kids and almost-Mormon kids about their faith. Never me. I don't know why. When I was engaged a year after completing her AP class, she asked the mom of one of my best friends if she couldn't talk some sense into me. I was mad about that. (Not mad anymore, after almost 14 years of marriage.) I heard when I was editor of a magazine later, that magazine was to be found in her classroom. Not sure whether that's true. Regardless, Ms. Stitham deserves credit as the mother of my intellectual life. If you are lucky enough to be in Fairbanks in the summer, you can take a Shakespeare class from her this year. (I also just learned she got an award from the BYU Alumni Association. Wow, the things you can learn on Google!)

I didn't really have a female mentor through college. One of my big regrets is not taking courses from some of the wonderful female professors at BYU while I was there, and not taking advantage of office hours and really developing those mentoring possibilities the way I could have. I thought I was too busy because I had to work and go to school. When I look at that time now, I realize I didn't even know what busy was. Anyway.

After college I worked for WordPerfect Magazine. Initially I felt a little out of it -- the other editors were much cooler than I -- stylish and organized, and they didn't live in Wymount Terrace! But when everything fell apart at that company, I was the one they chose to stay. I still can't say whether it was because I had gotten the two newsletters on schedule over the course of a couple of months, or because I was working for extremely cheap. Whatever the reason, the publisher, Edie Rockwood (who was also a CES Know Your Religion speaker, and whose story of sudden widowhood is still in one of the current Young Women manuals) took a chance on me, and it paid off -- for me, at least. I don't know if anything could have saved the magazine at that point. But the responsibilities I suddenly had have been the foundation for the rest of my career -- organizing, negotiating, supervising, planning and even learning the very basics of graphic design and the print process. Edie let me do my thing. She didn't supervise me a lot. No one did. For some reason I was trusted. It worked for me; I learned. Edie was a tiny, redheaded powerhouse and also a consummate lady. After her husband died while her children were still small, she muscled her way through school and created this great career in publishing -- in Orem! She's not too Googlable. I don't know where she landed. When the company finally dissolved, I asked what she would do next. All I remember is someone assuring me that she would be just fine.

It's interesting that the non-family influential women in my life have mostly been teachers. I didn't know a lot of women in other professions as I was growing up, and those I did know were just not in my life that much because, well, I was just a kid. I had many great teachers whom I haven't mentioned -- choir and drama teachers, notably, since I spent so much time. I had a crazy voice teacher in Alaska whom I'll have to write about another time. But really, I think it's impossible to overvalue what teachers can do.

I also think I'm going to have to do another post about girlfriends. This is just getting way long.


Gerry said...
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TerrenceM said...
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SalGal said...

Ana, I don't know why this story is such a surprise to me, but I am continually amazed at how incredibly rich your life has been! I'm not saying my own life sucks or is entirely un-interesting, but when I think about you... WOW!!!