School let out at 3:05 p.m. and the halls were utterly desolate. The false oblivion was amplified by the fact that the particular hall I strode down was old.
My high school was over fifty years old at the time, old enough to have borne witness to the rise of the human rights activists of the 1960’s and the 1970’s and certain anti-racism riots. In Escambia High School’s history, from the fall of 1972 through the end of the school year in mid-1973, riots had plagued the halls after a football game agitated the freshly-enrolled colored students. The cause was by the then-newly desegregated school’s mascot and fight song–the mascot was modeled after the Colonel Reb mascot of the University of Mississippi, the fight song was “Dixie,’ and the school’s flag was that of the Confederates. For weeks, anti-riot teams lined up outside the school to throw tear gas through the windows. Law enforcement patrolled every corner and every hall and every bathroom. It was mayhem for months until a court hearing deemed the icons “racially irritating” and were removed.
This was not the case in late 2011. There were no anti-riot teams, no tear gas, no racism (okay, maybe a little–but it hardly ever came from the white students). The hallway was not as old as the school itself, but it was the third wing to be added, the second and first being the original school (half the original school, at that). The faint blue linoleum floors were scuffed with shoe marks, sneaker soles, rubber door stop skids, and scratches from every possible thing that could scratch linoleum. Blue lockers lined this aged, oddly well-managed hallway. In three-foot by three-foot recesses there were the large solid-core heavy doors that opened outward. The white brick walls were cold, solid. The door I was heading to was on the left. I didn’t have to walk far from the entrance. I put my hand on the metal door handle and turned it.
I stepped into the classroom, hoping not to be the only one who returned for help. Blue carpet coated the floor, posters and boards scattered across the white brick walls. In the back, blue shelves and cabinets were suspended on the walls, a large back shelf with three chairs for times when there were too many students or students from another class arrived. Three filing cabinets, each with various paraphernalia littering the top and front, stood next to the small desk with a computer monitor and laptop on top. This was where the grades would be sent to an online database that no one could use because it was always under maintenance. The front of the room was dominated by a large projector screen, and a podium and desk and cart with a projector in the foreground. At this desk, my cranky pregnant English teacher sat. Ms. Gentry. She greeted me (which was odd–she never greeted me).
During the months we had been working, the primary topic of the first semester was Shakespeare. Nobody liked Shakespeare–not even Shakespeare himself. The first two months of the school year, my class had no permanent teacher because the one who was intended for us died of cancer just a week before the year began (sadly, this teacher, Mr. Julian, was my older brother’s, and he was very upset that Mr. Julian died and that I did not get the chance to meet him). The week’s study in the middle of October was the analysis of Shakespeare’s favorite meter: dactylic hexameter (I can feel the cringe brought on by this mention).
I wasn’t alone, there were other students; yet I still sat isolated. I was on a mission to write a poem like that of Shakespeare, but dactylic hexameter was all too difficult for my freshman underachieved-English-scores mind. I sat staring, thinking, raising blood pressure for about half an hour. Just before I was about to walk out and break down, Ms. Gentry saw that I had not moved or written anything since I had sat down, and she came over to my desk. She asked me what was wrong, and I could not help myself but to start crying like the incapable freshman that always struggled with English I was.
I remember her actually being nice to me, telling me that I did not need to worry so much about the assignment. I told her why I had come for the after-school help: my parents were having trouble helping me and keeping me focused. And then she said the most memorable thing I could have possibly heard from her cranky mouth: “You aren’t stupid, you can do this. If you weren’t cut out for this kind of work I would have removed you already.”
These words lifted my spirits. We then worked together to finish my assignment, her walking me through dactylic hexameter and reminding me of the rules of writing in such a meter. I finished, said my goodbyes, and went home. I turned in my assignment the next day, with the words “Thank you” written on the bottom of the page. The next week, that assignment was returned with the grades written on them. I retrieved mine. The number eighty was written on the top, in red ink and circled. Below the “Thank you,” two words were scribbled: “You’re welcome.” This moment had turned me from despising English work because of my lack of ability to comprehend it into a student who enjoyed attending my English courses. It was those words from Ms. Gentry that I still remember.
This event was life-changing. I strove to write as best I could, to expand my vocabulary, to become a better writer. In my later years of high school I would go one to impress my instructors with individual pieces that even they would not have written so well when they attended high school. These, too, made me a better writer; and those words began it all: “You can do this.”