Life is short. We don’t have much time to gladden the hearts of those who walk this way with us. So, be swift to love and make haste to be kind. Henri-Frederic Ariel
Fifty years ago I was fresh out of college and learning to teach English to rooms full of ninth graders. My challenge was to interest almost 150 teenagers in books and reading, to teach them spelling and grammar, and how to write an essay. Some students were enthusiastic, especially when we borrowed play swords and acted out famous scenes from Romeo and Juliet. Others, I think, simply waited for the bell to ring.
I’ve forgotten most of the faces, but a few rise before me now, and I can even remember where they sat. Mary, for example, sat in the first row on the right. She dressed plainly and wore her dark hair braided and pinned on her head. A Japanese American, she was one of the few students with non-European ancestry. I remember Mary’s smile and friendliness, and how she sometimes hung out in my classroom after school had ended. She was an excellent writer and responded thoughtfully during class.
I moved away after a couple years and left my teaching job. I never lost Mary though. Intermittently through the years, we’ve been in touch. I met with her when she was editing a magazine. Then I heard she had moved west and was passionately engaged in anti-war activism through art and poetry. She hosted music programs on public radio and found her home in Albuquerque’s art world. I read the poems she posted on her website. Once she told me about helping lost street kids rebuild their lives. Reclaiming her Japanese heritage, Mary continued to develop her strong sense of self and her calling to poetry.
And then, almost ten years ago, Mary asked if she could dedicate her first published book of poetry to me. Yes! What an honor! When the book arrived, I opened it eagerly. Under my name was written “my ninth grade English teacher who saved my life.” I did what??
Turning to Mary for an answer, I learned of the other side of her ninth grade life. Behind the gifted writing and her ready smile lay a home life of religious fundamentalism and white supremacy, a place of cruel abuse from which she escaped as soon as she could. I had seen the surface and never guessed what lay beneath. How did I save her life when I was just figuring out how to live my own?
Affirming her gift for writing, enjoying her conversation after class, sending her a postcard from England–these were small things, not life-saving actions. But Mary recounted another small event, one that I don’t remember. Once she was hanging out in my room after school when a couple of the big guys came swaggering in to see me. As she was leaving, they made a disparaging joke about her. Mary remembers me fiercely telling them: You just wait. Mary is the kind of person who is going to change the world!
I wish I remembered saying that, but it doesn’t matter. The only person who needed to remember was Mary, and she did. Her life has been about changing the world, using her gifts and her energy, her compassion and her wisdom to make the world better.
Mary is my teacher now. What has she taught me? I’ve learned that our lives are profoundly linked to others, and the ripples from our small actions and words extend further than we would ever expect. We are never a neutral presence in another’s life. We can do harm, even through ignoring another. (Whose raised hand gets recognized in the classroom?) Or we can be attentive and experience the other as an equal, as another child of God. We may not always save a life, but we always have an influence.
Mary has taught me that gratitude travels two ways. I may have saved Mary’s life through means I will never understand, but Mary has deeply blessed my life by inviting me to participate in hers. In the end, we have both given, and we have both received.
Last week I heard from Mary again. She has been named Poet Laureate for the city of Albuquerque, and she invited me to watch the online ceremony. I watched, I remembered, and I filled with gratitude.
from I am a poet i am a poet to reclaim humanity from the ravages of war not to count the casualties but to heal them i am a poet and my task is immense i cannot do it alone but an army of poets can kiss the world awake Mary Oishi
from you are here you should have died you should have died so many times i cannot count them all you should have died but here you are still here still here still dancing. ---Mary Oishi