One of my two high school English teachers, Beth Ryan, passed away today.
Aside from my parents, she was the person who did the most to help me create a future for myself. She taught me how to be a writer, and how to be a teacher. She wrote the letter that got me into Stanford. She was an island of sanity in an “alternative” school that, gradually but definitively, went insane. I was terribly lonely there for a variety of reasons; without her support, I might have simply given up on my schoolwork, as in fact I came dangerously close to doing.
Beth showed her students how to write like themselves. Her assignments were directed, but spacious; her classroom discussions were broad, but not digressive. She taught us how to distinguish what was vital and new from what was stale in our writing. Her comments were illuminating without being wounding. Without lapsing into corniness, Beth taught us how to talk about the way a book picks you up from where you are, and sets you down somewhere else when you’re done with it. She taught us about the depth of literary characters: at college, I analyzed Shakespeare using what I’d learned analyzing Barbara Kingsolver, which is really saying something.
She was a fierce, passionate, outspoken woman. When I took my first class with her, she had just returned from a whitewater rafting sabbatical, and I understood that she’d taken that sabbatical to avoid burning out. Beth lived the very difficult truth that to be good at what you do means making camp on the edge of burning out, and having the courage to come back, year after year, regardless.
It seems like there must be exceptions to the rule that every teacher — really, every knowledge worker of any kind — owes their vocation to “that teacher.” Yet in my experience, there are no exceptions. I have had other mentors, whom I cherish as well. But it was Beth who was there when the die was about to be cast one way or the other for me. At that moment, she lent me some of her strength.
She was, and is, an example to everyone in her community. I feel honored to have known her, and greatly saddened that she is gone.