I just found out that my 11th grade English teacher, who was also my high school creative writing teacher, passed away last week. She was 75 and had been ill with pancreatic cancer.
I haven't seen Mrs. Jaffee in years, probably not since I graduated in 1986. But when my mother sent me the news via email (she and my Dad still live in the town where I grew up, and she had seen the obituary in the newspaper) I felt real grief at her passing. Mrs. Jaffee was the kind of teacher who knew how to shape students for the better by challenging us to be our best. She could drive you a little crazy, yes, but her enthusiasm was catching. She demanded excellent work. And she believed that the best way to help people love reading and writing was to make them read and write. A lot.
I went digging deep down into the oldest layers of my writing files to find a handful of papers I'd saved in high school. A handful of these have Mrs. Jaffee's comments written on them in her bold, red cursive. On the cover sheet of a story I wrote for Creative Writing in October 1984, I find this: "You captured the essence of excitement and wonder and put me there with you." Followed by "Fix awkward areas." :-)
On another short story I wrote for the creative writing final exam the following June, I find these words: "I got chills reading this. It's beautiful."
She was one of the first people to ever read and respond to things I wrote in a way that made me feel I could really write. In ways that helped me to know I could move someone emotionally. In ways that helped me know I could learn to write better.
And yes, I did say creative writing final exam. Bizarre, I know, but hey, my high school never made sense. Every class we were in enrolled in (except perhaps gym or study hall) was assigned its mid-term and final exam periods, even a subject like Creative Writing which would seem to be nigh unto impossible to 'test' students in. But Mrs. Jaffee found a way to make those exam periods count. In fact, she made them downright enjoyable and exciting, at least to a student like me who loved to write. Her "exams" consisted of bringing out a big bag full of clippings: photos, headlines, tiny little feature story bits from the newspaper. She'd spread them all over the table, call us up in little groups or clusters to choose an image or some words that inspired us, and send us back to our desk with pen and as much paper as we needed. And for the next hour and a half, we'd write our little hearts out, producing a story.
During my junior year, I had her for English. That was the year we focused on American Literature. At one point in the course she had each of us choose one modern American author on which to really focus -- we had to read 1,000 pages, I think, of the chosen author. She wanted me to tackle Michener, I seem to remember, and was a little disappointed when I went for Ayn Rand instead (don't ask...adolescents make odd choices sometimes!). That was the year I had a short story and a poem appear in the literary magazine for the first time. My short story won a school-wide contest (one of my best friends, who last I heard has become a published horror novelist, won second place with a story about a kitten). Based on that work, she invited me to become prose editor of the literary magazine (she was the faculty advisor) during my senior year.
But my senior year was something of a disaster. I got ill with mono and spiraled into one of the only seasons of my life of some serious depression. Mrs. Jaffee gently wrested the prose editorship from me, a decision I remember respecting (I wasn't consistently showing up to meetings) but also one that hurt. I think she knew that though. At any rate, in the spring she came to me and announced, in her calm but confident way that would brook no opposition, that she would not let the literary magazine go to press unless I submitted a story. To make things even worse, she told me she felt the magazine was lacking humor -- could I please submit a funny story?
What a thing to ask a depressed teenager! I'm not sure it ever occurred to me until today, 22 years after the fact, that Mrs. Jaffee was giving me the best gift she could. She was challenging me to write during a period when I felt so emotionally lethargic I could barely do anything. And she was challenging me to look for the lighter side. How could I refuse Mrs. J? I wrote her the funny story and she published it. It got recognized by the county school system and turned into a script that was performed the next year downtown (I was in my first weeks of college then, in another state, but my parents saw it...and even sent me a video).
The more I jog down memory lane today, the more I realize how vividly I can recall this terrific teacher, and how easily I can track her influence in my early writing life. Mrs. Jaffee was one of the first people who helped me to understand that one becomes a writer by writing. Writing often, writing poorly, writing well, writing when the mood strikes and when it doesn't, writing when you have to, writing when you feel inspired, writing when you don't. Just writing.
Thank you, Mrs. Jaffee. May you rest in peace.