59: English Escape

59: English Escape

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Teachers

English Escape

Reading is not just an escape. It is access to a better way of life.

~Karin Slaughter

I stood in front of a panel of expectant faces, hoping the speech I wrote would be good enough to read at graduation. The board sat before me, an assortment of high-school teachers I didn’t recognize, except for one, Mr. Timmons. He had been my sophomore English teacher.

Mr. Timmons had a warm smile and genuinely cared for his students. From the first day of my sophomore year, I knew I’d enjoy his class. It didn’t take him long to discover my love of literature. I had begun to read The Iliad, and he was impressed that I chose to read that in my free time. As I progressed and we discussed what I was learning from Homer’s epic storytelling, Mr. Timmons realized my appreciation of different perspectives and began suggesting other books he thought I would like. He could not have known that I immersed myself in other worlds to escape my rocky home life. It probably never occurred to him that school was my reprieve.

From as far back as I could remember, my father struggled with his past and binge drank on some weekends. He could be a mean drunk. I grew up feeling it was my job to protect my mom and sister from him, so he would occasionally take his anger out on me. My mom finally gained the courage to leave him, but my sister went off to college and my grandpa died, leaving my mom struggling to take care of her mom while working long hours on the night shift at the Chrysler plant.

I had always been independent, so she left me to my own devices, parenting me the best she could when she felt it important. It seemed to work, but inside I was crumbling. There were days when I wouldn’t see my mom at all, and I refused to speak to my father after we left him. I just couldn’t do it anymore.

Mr. Timmons became the only constant father figure in my life. He listened to me, and he encouraged my love of all things written.

I clung to the stories he suggested and read them like crazy. Despite his efforts, things got really rough in the second semester. I started dating a guy who was very much like my father. He grew controlling, and our relationship moved quickly, leaving me with bruises all over my body by the time it ended.

My friends didn’t understand. My mom was busy. I hadn’t spoken to my father in six months. Life began to feel hopeless. English class became my only true escape.

I felt that everything was my fault. I had allowed everything to fall apart. Everyone was upset with me. I couldn’t take it anymore. I went to a party, got drunk and found a bottle of pills that I swallowed, hoping to end it all.

After that, everything was chaos. There was the hospital, in-patient, and the release. My mother told me she couldn’t handle me anymore and sent me to live with my father, a fate I feared more than anything. By the time I walked back into Mr. Timmons’ classroom, my life had completely shifted. The simple act of sitting at my desk offered a sense of normalcy that felt like coming home.

Mr. Timmons talked to me like he always did. So many teachers, family members, and friends had begun treating me like I was a little kid, handling me with very careful words. Some even avoided me, but not him.

He decided to give the class a treat and show the movie Dead Poets Society. I loved it instantly, but about halfway through Mr. Timmons asked me to step out into the hall with him.

The empty corridors seemed so lifeless compared to the shuffling crowds that usually filled them. I wasn’t sure what he had to say, but I knew it involved what I had been through. “Are you enjoying the movie?” He watched me as he closed the door behind us.

“Yeah, I love it.”

“Jessie, I’m going to tell you the ending because of what you’ve been through. The main character kills himself.”

I appreciated his straightforward approach, but I couldn’t say anything. I just stared at the floor.

Mr. Timmons brightened his voice. “I’m sorry for what you’ve been through. But I’m here for you, and I don’t want you to ever do anything like that again.”

It felt so good just to hear that. It seemed so simple. “I won’t,” I promised.

Reading my graduation speech in front of him a couple of years later, I had never been so grateful. My sister and I were sharing our own apartment, and my life had finally started to feel like my own. At first, I had written the usual cookie-cutter speech about carpe diem and all the possibilities the future can hold, but it didn’t say anything about me.

What I held in my hands instead was a different kind of speech, one that spoke of the sanctuary school had become. How it had helped me to escape the pain that plagued my life. Starting from scratch helped me to reflect on my learning experience and the teacher who had helped me through my sophomore year. It was a speech that had little chance of being read at a celebration for hundreds of students, and I knew it.

Somehow, I got through reading it without stuttering or crying. My body shook with anxiety, but I took some deep breaths and felt satisfied by the end.

Afterward, Mr. Timmons came to speak with me. He praised my writing and beamed at me like a teacher whose student had won a Pulitzer. The essay was not selected, but that didn’t matter. I know he voted for it. I had said what I needed to say to the teacher who made the biggest impact on my life.

~Jessica Marie Baumgartner

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