I was in my twenty-fourth year as a writer and my ninth year as a newspaper editor when I began teaching an adult school writing class. In that class, on one of those clear fall California evenings in 1992, I met Pat Snider. All I remember about that first night is the smell of rain through the open window of the classroom and the faces blurring before me as I gripped the podium. I was new to teaching and terrified. Once I began to speak, the trembling within me subsided, and the magic began to take over, an almost palpable energy that passed between the students and me.
We were as unlikely a group as one could imagine. Walter, the African-American retired military man, had been the first black teacher in a conservative district. He was finding words to express what, to paraphrase James Baldwin, was the realization that, in a world of Gary Coopers, he was an Indian. Anita, a retired bookkeeper, experimented with confession stories. Bob, a bearded computer geek, was a card-carrying member of the NRA and the writer of essays just a shade to the right of where most of us were politically comfortable. Maria, a feisty forensic nurse relocated from Brooklyn, wrote biting articles on prison reform.
The intensity increased throughout our weeks together. Anita sold the story she had reworked countless times. Bob became a guest columnist for our newspaper. Although Pat Snider never spoke and didn’t read in class, she did turn in a poem. It was rough, as I recall, and I tried to combine encouragement with honest criticism. Yet I was too new to teaching to know that the ones who sit in the back row and never speak are often the ones who need the most attention.
The class ended before Christmas, and to my surprise, I received a card from Pat. It contained a poem, “Ode to a Teacher.” She spoke of a fear that is common to all of us who dare to be writers—a fear of starting too late, of not being good enough. She wrote, too, of a teacher who guided her, who, as she put it, “…takes my hand and tells me I can fly.”
It felt like undeserved praise. In my reply, I said, “When the student is ready, the teacher appears,” and I encouraged her to continue writing. The following March, I received a handwritten note from her, saying that her husband’s job had ended, and they would have to “move on.”
“My question is, may I keep in contact by mail?” she asked. “Never having written before, I now can’t seem to stop, to whatever end. As my dear George would say in the idiom of his beloved West Virginia, ‘Think someone done left the door open.’”
I told her to keep in touch but received only a Christmas card from her that year. By that time, I was caught up in the demands of the next session. In a world of rejection, doubt, and the smug sanity only non-writers enjoy, my students and I became the ultimate support group for each other.
On the last day of that year, we met at a local café to celebrate the selection of Maria, the nurse, from almost two hundred applicants, to replace Bob as guest columnist for our newspaper. Maria often said that Bob was so far to the political right and she so far to the left, that, “We meet somewhere in the middle of China.”
Her statement resonated, perhaps because it reflected the essence of the class. Our differences in politics, philosophy, and the workings of the world were little compared to the real obstacles we shared as writers—the challenge of that blank page, the isolation, the inevitable rejection, the fear.
Bob was the last to arrive at the restaurant that day. He walked up to our table, grinning, as he held up a tiny flashlight.
“I’m passing on the torch,” he said, and then he handed the flashlight to Maria.
Sitting next to Walter, I watched the unlikely couple at the head of the table. The youthful, bearded conservative and the white-haired Amnesty International advocate talked quietly, their heads close, the tiny light flickering between them.
“Only in our group,” Walter said, his voice catching.
As I reviewed my lecture notes several weeks later, the phone rang. The voice of the woman on the other end was unfamiliar and strangely disturbing.
“I’m Pat Snider’s daughter,” she began. “I found your number with some of her poems.” She sounded far away, tired.
My mouth went dry. I didn’t want whatever I was going to hear next.
“Is Pat all right?”
“Cancer. The hospice worker just left.” She began to cry softly. “I don’t even know why I’m dragging you into all of this. You meant so much to her that I thought maybe if you two could just talk…”
“Of course,” I said, and wondered what I could say to a dying woman I had barely known.
“I’ll call you back once she wakes up. It’s going to mean so much to her.”
Instead, Pat’s husband, phoned to say she hadn’t wakened at all.
Anita, the confession writer, moved to another state that summer. Bob began working nights but kept in touch. Maria left the class as her involvement in prison reform demanded more time, and she later co-authored a book for the families of prisoners. Walter remained, “a lifer,” he said, blending with each new group of students.
Over years of teaching others like Pat, the quiet ones, it occurs to me that had I been lucky enough to find a class when I was starting out, I would also have been that almost invisible student in the back row.
Regardless of how Pat found my classroom, she got exactly what she needed there, as many of us did. In that room, somewhere in the middle of China perhaps, she too found kinship, validation, and a reason to believe. It is the most any of us who write, regardless of when we begin or how much time we have left, can ask.
California author Bonnie Hearn Hill’s fourteenth novel, IF ANYTHING SHOULD HAPPEN, will publish in the UK in March, 2015 and in the United States four months later. It will be followed in 2016 by GOODBYE FOREVER, the second in that series. A conference speaker and mentor to writers, she writes suspense that deals with social justice and women’s issues. A film based on one of her books is currently in pre-production.