21 January 2014


I dreaded going to her class. Dreaded it.

In my four years of high school, I only got detentions from her: seven of them in my first semester of freshman year. It got to be a joke. I would be in detention with a whole bunch of other people who never got detentions.

Miss Clark?” we would ask each other. Solemn nods all around, and then snickers. My best friend received a detention from her for “excessive happiness.”

Miss Clark was mean, and harsh. We found a certain unity in that no one was safe from her ascerbic wit, not even the smartest guy in our grade (probably, actually, in the entire school, for several years before and after our graduating class. Yes, you, Tom). At the time, the only redemption in going to her class was that she made it clear that she thought my archnemesis was the stupidest person she had ever come across.

God bless her.

Miss Clark wore starched men's button-down shirts, stonewashed jeans, and Birkenstocks every day, weather irrelevant. Her grey hair was shaved short on the sides and only a bit longer on top, just enough to curl a bit. And she did not give a good damn what anyone thought about her attire. She, alone of nearly all teachers at Sterling High School, had the spine to tell us when we were being idiots, when we were not thinking things through, or when we were being straight up careless. No one else talked to us like that. She was absolutely terrifying.

I dreaded her class, in which the powers that were enrolled me because I had the temerity to be on the drill team (Do Not Say A Word) and orchestra at the same time. My punishment, therefore, was to have class at half past seven in the morning with the most intimidating teacher I had ever had, who, I was certain, existed solely to torture me.

However, the great thing about it was---and it did not actually take sixteen years of retrospect to come up with this (in other news, Holy God I was a freshman sixteen years ago aaaaahhhhhh)---she never talked down to me. Other teachers would put on their Very Disappointed face and tell me that I simply was not applying myself, and I could do so much better, and I should prioritise their class, et cetera. Not so with Miss Clark.

“Holly Ivy,” she would say, keeping me after class. She always called me Holly Ivy. I do not know why. Probably specifically because it irritated me. “Holly Ivy, what was your point here? Don't say 'uh' to me. This paragraph is completely unecessary. Tell me what your point is here. I would somehow managed to stammer an answer. “Okay, so why did not not write that?” I would say something about how I was not sure if I was right.

In reply, she glanced up, on this occasion, at the door, then lowered her voice. “Holly Ivy. I don't give a damn if you agree with me or if I agree with you. I only care that you can make a decent argument. If your argument is dumb, I will tell you.”

Then she sat down on her desk and winked at me. “You know I'll tell you the truth.”

Damn right she would, like no other adult. If one were to looke up “Brutal Honesty” in a dictionary which included adjectives, Miss Clark's picture would be there, accompanied by no words. Somehow I survived that year.

Imagine my horror when I received my class schedule for my junior year and found out that I had Miss Clark again. I walked into her room, probably looking like I was being led to the gallows. She laughed at me. “Good to see you, too, Holly Ivy.” It turns out that she actually just hated teaching freshman.

Day two of her class, she took me to the book closet and I picked up copies of All Quiet on the Western Front, Catcher in the Rye, The Chosen, and five or six other books I cannot remember right off hand. This year, she said, everyone would read what they wanted, and we would write analytical essays, present our findings, and discuss each other's work in class.

It was amazing, for a couple of weeks.

Then, in a stroke of bullshit of enormous magnitude even for the powers that were at Ross Sterling High School, we were unceremoniously removed from Miss Clark's class and sent to the class of one of the most milquetoast individuals I have ever had the misfortune to come across.*

I did not really get the impact Miss Clark had on me for a few years, but I am pretty sure I survived the Honours program at Lee College because she started getting in my face about thinking at the tender age of fourteen. I survived my bachelor's degree because after having my wee fourteen year old ego ripped to shreds and then nuked from orbit, I was used to criticism and there was not a lot that could faze me. One of my professors actually, sarcastically, told me that she “assume[d] that [I] have more than two brain cells rattling around in there” while lecturing me on some transgression that more than likely had to do with my attendance.

In retrospect, that is one of the greatest complements I have ever received from a professor. Backhanded and brutal, but great.

Normally, when I write one of these essays about someone who had a significant impact on me who has died, I trot out the fact that I, fortunately, am not one of those people who “never listened and now it's too late woe and regret.” This remains true, but still I have some woe and regret because my thirty-year-old self wishes that my eighteen-year-old self would have had the damn sense to go get a mailing address from her so I could keep in touch. I am quite convinced that she had yet more wisdom to impart.

I did run into Miss Clark at the grocery store in Baytown a few years ago, and I hugged her and told her the standard rubbish about what I was doing with my life. I hope that encounter was enough for her to know the affection which I, in retrospect, held for her. I knew that I respected the hell out of her, and I am pretty sure she did know that, so I have that going for me.

However, last night, when I found out that she had died, I felt absolutely gutted. This is what it is like to not realise how much someone means to me until they are gone.

*This was actually the beginning of the end for my high school career. In retaliation for being put into this class, I tested out of junior and senior English. Then I tested out of junior and senior history. Then I tested out of health and government. I tested out of everything except for physics and mathematics. Eat it, GCCISD.

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