For the first few weeks I was enrolled in Amy Rauch Neilson’s composition course, our student-teacher relationship developed similarly to most others I’d had before: unsuccessfully.
Practically every teacher who had the misfortune of instructing me from ninth grade on expressed an instant aversion to me. It didn’t matter what approach I tried: quiet, funny, obsequious, vaguely interested. None of it worked. In retrospect, I can only guess that they could see past whatever shakily executed image I projected to what lay beneath it all—utter indifference.
I entered my freshman year at Washtenaw Community College with a bit more motivation than I had exhibited in high school, but I was still far from being academically engaged. For one, all the time I’d spent zoning out and skipping class had left me with a pretty pathetic base of knowledge and practically nonexistent study skills.
To top it off, my dad died about two years prior to that when I was a junior in high school. I was angry at life—even more-so than your average adolescent—and twice as angry at myself for demonstrating such apathy about my future before he passed away. I felt completely incapable of accomplishing anything of importance and was convinced that even if I did, it wouldn’t matter. I was emerging from a crash course in the realities of death. Everything was insignificant by comparison.
So, when I got the vibe from Amy that she wasn’t crazy about me, I was neither upset nor surprised.
To be fair, I wasn’t crazy about her either. I remember coming home from my first day of class and telling my mom that my seemingly lenient sociology instructor was cool, but my composition teacher…well, she was a little scary. It was hilarious to think about after she and I had become friends; Miss Sunshine Personified Amy deemed a fearsome force in any capacity. I had my reasons, though. It was clear on the first day of class that Amy was a stickler for rules. Meaning, she actually meant everything that she’d printed on the syllabus. The nerve.
She also expected us to work. Hard. And even though it was only the first day, you could tell in her face that she meant business. Over the next few weeks, she drilled into our heads a string of tedious grammar rules. Rules that should be taught extensively from kindergarten through 12th grade, but that scarcely even make it into the standard lessons. Rules that equipped me with basic communication skills that became the foundation for my journalism education years later.
The one thing I had going for me in Amy’s class was my passion for writing. I can’t remember exactly when it started, but I do remember forcing my family members to type up plotless stories riddled with excessive dialogue when I was too young to do so myself. My writing evolved over the years in direct correlation with my stages of development. Angsty poems read aloud in high school poetry slams. Short stories comprised of endless description; three pages dedicated to the colors and shapes of fall leaves, then a paragraph at the end contemplating the meaning of life.
Talk about tedious.
This is what Amy had to work with when I entered her class. Because writing had always been something that I loved and did willingly, I never considered it a skill that could be honed. It was an exercise in self-indulgence. Frankly, it embarrassed me a little. I didn’t know why I felt compelled to regularly purge the contents of my psyche onto paper, yet couldn’t for the life of me sit down to complete my biology homework.
But as the semester progressed, I began to value what I had previously dubbed a useless compulsion. As the assignments became more involved, I also realized that what I had been doing until that point was the equivalent of written finger-painting. It was fun, but took no technical skill whatsoever. That’s where Amy came in.
I began to stay after class and get one-on-one feedback from her. I didn’t do it to suck up or feign interest to gain bonus points, to even my own surprise. I did it because I felt myself improving, and I wanted it to continue. And I genuinely loved this class.
For the most part, Amy’s stringent first-day demeanor began to soften during class number two, when she didn’t have to focus as much on defining expectations and garnering respect from a classroom primarily of teens. But there was still a chill in the air during our interactions. She told me later as we stood in her kitchen making applesauce, during what I’ve come to call “Amy’s domestic goddess lessons,” that I wasn’t the only one who started out with a negative first impression. “I just thought you seemed entitled, like you were used to getting whatever you wanted on a silver platter,” she said, almost apologetically. It wasn’t until I met with her one day after class to discuss an assignment that our Mexican standoff ended for good.
We sat across from one another in the otherwise empty classroom after the night course ended. The fluorescent overhead lights and the dusk that crept through the windows cast a sort of institutional glow that you only see in classrooms, offices and hospitals during evening hours. Somehow, we got on the topic of parents, and in that oddly lit room I told her all about the rough two years I’d had after losing my dad.
Whenever I disclosed this piece of personal history, people usually reacted in one of two ways: They either offered their genuine but disconnected sympathy, or they treated the subject like a fragile house of cards to be cautiously circumvented. Amy did neither. She told me about her mother who passed away after battling breast cancer, and her father who died of ALS. She had endured plenty of devastating diagnoses and premature loss. She wasn’t a tourist in this territory.
She spoke to me with a mixture of empathy and practicality, and not the far-away kind of empathy that draws solely from faded memories. It’s not just that she knew where I was coming from. She met me there, and she helped pull me out.
I took more composition classes from Amy, and we became closer with each semester. Another student, Lisa, Amy and I became a composition triumvirate. One of the first times I saw Amy outside of class, Lisa and I went to her house to bake pies. My mother was shocked, pleased and quite skeptical when I told her I was skipping my usual Friday-night debauchery to bake with my teacher. I’m not sure she was entirely convinced that I had told the truth about my plans until I returned completely sober with a pie in hand. A delicious one, at that.
Throughout my 11-year friendship with Amy, I have come to reconcile the once-puzzling discrepancy between my draconian first impression of her and the warmth she has brought to my life since. It turned out Amy is not only Miss Sunshine Personified, but she is also the fearsome force I had seen at the beginning. This dichotomy has become evident in every facet of her life: her delicate and beautiful use of words, and her bullish, driven approach to the schooling and career that bolstered her writing; her unwavering emotional support in her friendships and marriage, and her propensity to exercise brutal honesty; her gentle encouragement and pedagogy, and her steadfast commitment to pushing one’s mind and abilities to the very limit.
And when little Theo came along it could be seen in her daily, effervescent “good morning” serenades to the smiling boy, and her firm, guiding hand that continues to teach him the values that will mold him into a great man. And in her battle with cancer, it has become evident through the constant humor and grace she has maintained while exerting the fierceness of a true warrior.
My friendship with Amy may not seem exceptional from an outsider’s perspective. I wasn’t the first kid to experience a death in the family. Amy’s not the first woman to fight breast cancer. I wasn’t the first wayward student to excel academically with the help of a teacher, and our relationship wasn’t the first to be salvaged by second impressions. But Amy Rauch Neilson is the only person who has taught me—and I suspect many others—the precise balance required to live the most productive and fulfilling life one could possibly imagine. Amy has shown me how to fight with grace. And I will forever be grateful.