Here are some facts about my high school drama teacher:
She would go skydiving on weekends and would tell us about how it went in class on Mondays.
When she noticed that I was always hanging around after class and flipping through the plays on her shelf, she started recommending me plays and playwrights to read based on what she’d noticed my interests were. After I had read through everything she had that interested me, she told me about TheatreBooks — the legendary Toronto independent bookstore that sold plays and other books about theatre in the Annex (which has since sadly closed) — and I’d make a pilgrimage down to it every few weeks and flip through the plays until the employees there started recommending me plays, too.
I learned to write (how to find the rhythm and the voice and the structure of a word, a sentence, a scene, a story) through reading and writing plays. I took her playwriting class in grade 11, where she promised me that as long as I kept turning in versions of my scenes and assignments, she’d keep giving me notes back on them. And I would take her up on it — after she graded any of my work the first time, I would rewrite it based on her notes and submitted it back. And she gave me notes and met with me about it again. And again. And again. She was the first person who treated my writing as that of an equal, as a peer — she respected me and gave me real notes — some harsh ones, but ones she knew I could take and that I needed to hear. She was the first person who made me feel like a real writer.
She came in one Monday, into the blackbox theatre of our classroom, excitedly showing off a finger splint she had on. She had sprained her pinky finger (skydiving, of course, somehow) and her pinky was taped up to her ring finger for stability. I have no idea why I have retained this information, after nearly 15 years, out of everything else that I could have possibly remembered, but I remember that in showing off her finger splint, she picked up a glass of water, demonstrating how she’d always tuck her pinky under the glass to hold it, and remarked how you’ll never realize how much you use your pinky finger by itself, how much you take its existence for granted, until you don’t have the ability to use it that way anymore.
In my last year of high school, I couldn't decide between going to college for engineering or going to a theatre school for playwriting. I was unable to make a decision, and I asked for her advice, hoping that she’d push me toward theatre school. She told me that trying to be a writer would be a hard life — that for all the highs of it, it would also be exhausting and difficult and sad. And she told me that if I could find a happy life doing anything else, that I should try to go and be happy. And if I found that I couldn’t find happiness that way, then I’d know for sure. If I needed write, that writing would find me regardless, because I would know that to lose writing would mean to lose a form of happiness. It made me feel better because it made me understand that the choice was already made for me, in a way. No matter what I chose or what I did, if I needed it, it would find me again. And that promise of inevitability was comforting. I chose engineering.
When I left high school to go to college (where I quickly found that, although I was supposed to be in school for engineering, I was spending most of my time writing and performing in plays — which meant that she was right), she ended up leaving our high school, too — to teach at a different school, a fancy arts school uptown. And when I went to visit her from that point on, I would take the subway to a different stop, walk through a different neighborhood, enter a different building, and meet her in a different classroom, but everything still felt exactly the same once I got there.
When my first play, Dead End, was produced in Toronto in 2016, she came to see it with a few friends. I comped her the tickets but she insisted on paying for them anyway.
When I was working the proposal for my first book, everyone’s a aliebn when ur a aliebn too, I sent her the draft so she could give me her notes on it.
I’ve always thought of the idea of a “chosen family” as being one composed of your friends and peers — your chosen siblings, cousins, members of the same generation — and I admit that I understood less that your chosen family can also include your mentors, elders, ancestors. I consider her an auntie of my chosen family, then, one who you always want to talk to and have always been meaning to call.
Her name is printed in the acknowledgements at the back of both of my books as a way to thank her for being the reason they exist — for being the reason that this specific version of me exists. I wonder if she ever knew. I really, really hope that she knew.
I always imagine that one day, when I get less busy, I’ll fly home and visit her again in the school uptown and catch up for hours and hours in her office and tell her that she was the reason I became a writer, and tell her that she altered the entire course of my life.
You never realize how much you take someone’s existence for granted until you don’t have the ability to speak to them that way anymore.
I learned that my drama teacher passed away earlier this month. Fittingly, I found out from a friend of mine from high school who also took her class and adored her as a teacher. I messaged another friend of mine whose life I knew was also changed by her to pass on the news. I watched her funeral online through the chapel’s live stream. I learned she was wonderful aunt to her actual family. And I read all the condolences that her former students — some names that I recognized and many more that I didn’t — had left on her obituary page.
A good teacher makes you feel seen in a way no one else can see you, and makes you believe you can be the person they see you as, so when they are gone, it feels like that version of yourself that only they saw in you disappears too. It's as if you no longer can access that version of yourself because the person who saw that in you can no longer be accessed.
A teacher I love is gone and it feels like the person who only she could see in me has gone with her.
I will try to keep that person who only she could see in me alive.
Makeshift finger splint