Teachers Who Helped Me Be Me
I was painfully shy as a child. My parents worried about me, although I didn’t notice the concern that must have been swirling around me at the time. The first teacher who gave me personal attention was my fifth-grade teacher, Miss Epps. She was a slender woman, quite pretty in my eyes, who had a soft, gentle voice and dark skin. My memory is, or I was told later, that she was also very worried about my extreme shyness. With my parents’ consent, she invited me over to her house so that we could spend time together. Now, my memory tells me it was an overnight stay, but it may have just been for dinner. She lived in an apartment, which I thought was exotic. I do not recall what she made for us for dinner—I remember feeling overwhelmed by her kindness and concern. I don’t know if her focused attention on me helped me out of my shell, but the fact that she cared so much is something I will always remember. She made me feel special. I’ve tried to find Miss Epps in recent years, to no avail. I wish I could thank her.
I was really scared about moving to a new school when I started sixth grade, but the homeroom teacher I was assigned made it all fine. Mrs. Yondorf was a rock of kindness. You understood she was not a pushover, but she had a sturdiness to her—in personality and stature—that made you feel safe. I was still very shy, but she didn’t care. She gave me the guidance I needed to ease into a new school culture and more demanding classes than I was used to. Later, she moved to the high school to teach English, and while I never took her class, I felt a warmth from her every time we passed in the hall. She was a bit of a star in the English department—I am not sure why, but I felt it in her carriage and the way she was talked about by students. She was adored. I wanted to say to my high school friends, “well, you may have studied literature with Mrs. Yondorf, but I had her in sixth grade! I had her in my formative years!” But, of course, I was too shy to say anything.
My homeroom class was downstairs, away from all the other classes, but it was across from the lunch room, which doubled as the art room. Twice a week, we had art, and it was heaven for me. The lunchroom was miraculously transformed into an art space by two teachers, Mr. and Mrs. Hoagland, a married teaching duo. They were older (but probably only forty or so), and seemed to have limitless energy. They made art an adventure and it was messy. I loved messy. Mrs. Hoagland’s hair was always tied in an unkempt bun or ponytail, and her husband’s hair, of which there was very little, was wild at times. Their aprons fascinated me, and I longed for one like they wore, all paint-splattered and crusty. Mr. and Mrs. Hoagland had such a love for what they did, it was infectious. They made me feel good about my already budding artistic life.
In the 1960s, there was a cultural stereotype that girls were not good at math. I went into my first algebra class in eighth grade with trepidation, assuming I would not be good at it. Lo and behold, the class was taught by a woman! Mrs. Guckenheimer was a short, rotund woman with a thick German accent—so thick that sometimes I had trouble understanding her. Her kindness and humorous enthusiasm warmed me to math, and I learned that I was good at algebra! She encouraged me, and I left that year feeling that maybe I was a math wiz. The next class was to be geometry, which I was sure I would ace because I was a good artist by then. What happened was that geometry was taught by an arrogant man who had no time for me; I did quite poorly in that class and my math dreams ended when that class was over. But I will always appreciate Mrs. Guckenheimer for giving me confidence that I was good at something society did not particularly want me to shine in. Her favorite phrase to use in class with us was “More power to you!”
My family was funny; we valued humor. My father was particularly funny and liked to tease. So when I took American history from Mr. LeSure, I felt right at home and loved his sense of humor. That’s what I remember about him: he had a dry wit with his students, and he would sometimes present history in a humorous lens. Though I don’t recall any specifics, his gift to me was his attitude. Mr. LeSure always wore colorful socks; it was something he was known for. It was the early 1970s, and kids were wearing a lot of weird things. As he sat in front of the class, he would cross his legs to show his fancy socks and scoff, saying “I don’t criticize the way you dress, you don’t criticize the way I dress.” He helped me realize how important humor is in showing affection to other people, and that teachers could be funny, too.
Copyright © 2023 by Liza Donnelly
Liza Donnelly is an American cartoonist and writer, best known for her work in The New Yorker, and is a contributor to The New York Times, Washington Post, CNN and others. She is the creator of digital live drawing, a new form of journalism wherein she draws using a tablet, and shares impressions and visual reports of events and news instantly on social media. She has drawn this way for numerous media outlets, including CBS News, The New Yorker, Fusion, NBC, and covered live the Oscars, the Democratic National Convention, the 2017 presidential inauguration, among others. Donnelly writes a regular column for Medium on politics and global women’s rights; she is the author of eighteen books. She has a newsletter called Seeing Things at lizadonnelly.substack.com She lives in New York.