She developed a series of exercises to draw me out. She had me take up journaling. She would sit next to me when she broke us up into groups because she knew I had no reservations when it came to talking to her one on one. She would read my essays aloud to the class, omitting my name. The positive responses made me want to stand up there and tell the story myself. Well, almost.
That’s what great teachers do every single day. Their school days follow no bells or lesson plans when they’re seeding and tending to their fertile minded charges. They have an implacable belief in the potential which exists inside even the most stubborn little contrarian. The patience they exhibit in the process of extracting our best is surgical and saintly and often times it goes completely unnoticed.
In the spring, the school held a writing contest. Ms. Witkowski signed me up, much to my chagrine. I knew I could do it, that wasn’t the problem. The problem was the winner got to recite their story in the Principal’s office over the PA system. I had made significant progress over the course of six months, but this was something else entirely.
My response when she told me she had signed me up? I cried.
I cried hard. The fear of speaking in front of that many people was stronger than the shame of crying in front of my class. I just wasn’t going to do this, and if I had to throw a hissy fit to extricate myself from the contest, then that’s how it was going to work.
The long story short is that I entered my story “Animal Crackers” into the contest. I waited patiently to hear the good news- that my story had not been selected. It wasn’t that I had thrown the fight, nothing like that. Even at the tender age of seven years old, I was never going to attach my name to anything less than the best stuff I had. I just figured that it was a big school and there were way more big kids than me who had submitted stories into the contest. Big kids were like outer space, heavy objects and foreign languages to my way of thinking. They were worth more.
Ms. Witkowski came to my house to deliver the news that I had won. She was always looking out for me, and I guess she figured if I was going to have another meltdown, better to have it out of sight of my classmates. The fact that it mattered this much to her became my clarion call. Here was this teacher with a rooting interest in me that I couldn’t figure out for the life of me. But it triggered something. The wiring inside my little cranium began firing away at the parts of my body with less gumption. The moment had such a galvanizing effect that I was determined to read that story in front of the Principal and over the PA system.
It was my story. It was my voice. Thanks to her time and efforts and unfailing belief in my abilties, I knew I had to use it. That never would have happened without Ms. Witkowski. Not a chance.
At one point in the film, the Arch Duke who would become King is insistent that he cannot do the things his teacher is asking of him. Unwilling to accept this mindset, his teacher presses him harder still, until the young prince screams “I have a voice!”
The room falls into silence as a moment of clarity rises above the din of doubt, revealing itself simply in his teacher’s all knowing smile. All the work and all the exercises and all the struggles and all the hopeless declarations have led to this moment. And this is when it occurs to the student that his teacher knows of what he speaks.
And so will he.