The Mark Blog


This week, as I write about writing, it is important to me to write about Shannon. She was my seventh grade Core teacher, which means she taught English in addition to history and social studies. She taught me about the power of words. She also taught me to believe that I could be skilled at expressing myself through them. For the past three and a half years, Shannon, who is 43, has battled cancer, and I recently learned that she is now in hospice care.

Some of the lessons I’ve learned from Shannon are literal. She taught me the importance of using homonyms properly (there, their and they’re; to, two and too; your and you’re; who’s and whose). She taught me to always seek the most meaningful word. (Good, she said, is a bland adjective. Can you think of a word that’s actually more descriptive?) She challenged us, her students, to find our true voices. (If you use swear words, she’d say, it suggests to the world that you don’t have the vocabulary to be more articulate.)

Of course, through her encouragement and positive example, she also illuminated deeper messages, many of which I continue to reflect on and strive toward today. Shannon opened the world of writing for me, teaching me about clarity, lyricism, and the power of self-expression. She also taught me to believe in myself as a writer.

In seventh grade, under Shannon’s tutelage, I wrote an essay titled “The Best Time of Day is Night” for a city-wide standardized writing test. You can imagine the approach many teachers would take to instructing middle schoolers about “standardized” writing, but imagine the opposite and then you’ve got Shannon’s approach. She encouraged us to be creative and develop our own style, to cultivate atmosphere and write poetically while still conveying information clearly. Also, we’d better use grammar and punctuation correctly!

When my essay came back with a strong score, Shannon made me feel special. Other teachers had given me positive feedback about my work before, but this was a pivotal moment because of the way Shannon taught and the way she connected with students. She gave me the confidence to believe that writing was something I could do well and that I should continue to work diligently to cultivate this ability.

Last year, Shannon visited the undergraduate creative writing course I was teaching at UC Davis. Though I was the instructor and she the visitor, she illuminated the classroom, and the way she engaged with the students exemplified the kind of teacher I would want to be.

I’m certain there are thousands of students whose lives Shannon has influenced in immensely positive and powerful ways. They can identify with me, then, when I celebrate the graceful powerhouse of a teacher and a person Shannon is. They can relate when I say, with sadness and gratitude, thank you to the woman with the big heart and the huge vocabulary who has made the world a brighter and more articulate place.