The relaunch of the Los Angeles Review of Books feels, in a lot of ways, like the start of a new year. This may be due in part to the writers who have recently come on board as regular contributors to the LARBlog — Scientific American journalist David Biello and LARB contributor Lisa Teasley among them. Today, our YA section editor Cecil Castellucci begins her own column, Castellucci’s Class Notes. As an editor, Cecil’s work on the blog has already yielded a series of essays on the experience of being a banned author in contemporary America; and as a writer, Cecil’s piece from last year “Better to Light a Candle than to Curse the Darknesss” continues to be one of the LARBlog’s most popular posts to date. Cecil appears in first position in the middle row in the above scan, taken from her senior page in the LaGuardia High School for the Arts yearbook, photo by Hélène Volckaert.
Period 1, English (Ms. Kay)
|Cecil Castelucci by Karyn Kay, March 2011|
The other day I went food shopping with my friend Jurgen who is visiting from Norway and needed to stock up the house he’s house-sitting. He bought the regular things, pasta, bananas, coffee, and milk. I didn’t need anything, but for some reason I decided to buy a jar of unsweetened applesauce.
When I was in high school, I ate applesauce all the time. Jars and jars. The boy that I was madly in love with my senior year, Peter Reiss—the boy who did not return my adoring affection—loved applesauce. I would eat it to feel closer to him when my heart was broken and bitter. By eating the applesauce that Peter Reiss so loved, I felt I was somehow eating the essence of him. Fixated, I wrote pages and pages of poems about Peter Reiss and applesauce. The only person who ever saw these horrible odes to the transubstantiation of my high school sweetheart was Ms. Karyn Kay, my senior year English teacher.
Ms. Kay was that cool kind of teacher. You know, the one who made growing up and becoming an adult seem not so awful. In contrast to the big dark world, Ms. Kay was small, pixie-like, with short chopped hair and cool jackets and scarves. She loved books and movies and she was passionate about art and artists. Then in her late thirties, she had accomplished a lot outside the classroom. She’d interviewed Dorothy Arzner and written a book about Myrna Loy; later she would go on to write a screenplay for a film that actually got made. She was generous about sharing her passions with her students. And since her students were at the LaGuardia High School for the Arts, we were the perfect students for her. In my case it was more than a fair exchange: my lovelorn applesauce poems for her knowledge, guidance, enthusiasm and support.
But it’s not just the applesauce. Through another weird circumstance I found myself at a party the other day with a friend and former classmate of Ms. Kay’s, Caz Zugaib. Exactly what was it about Ms. Kay?
“Ms Kay’s appeal had a lot to do with the fact that it is easy to like a teacher who likes you, and she liked us all in some authentic way. Her encouragement was tailored to the individual and she could hone in on what the student needed to know or hear in order to believe in her own potential. She made me believe I had writing talent,” Caz said.
Ms. Kay made us keep creative writing journals. That term I filled my journal with endless pages of angst and poems about Peter Reiss and applesauce. I wish I had them here in Los Angeles to share them with you. Imagine that they they went something like this:
applesauce. sticks to my ribs and bones like the paint on a canvas. but only one color. yellow. or beige. so soft. but my sharp bones make you run. you hide when i eat. applesauce still tastes so sweet.Just cringeworthy. But Caz was right. Ms. Kay always made me feel like a writer. She worked hard to try to make me see the gems inside of the rock.
As the wine flowed, Caz was on a roll: “Ms. Kay equipped me with an editor’s eye and helped me understand the difference between poetry and prose. I remember her taking a poem I wrote and slashing through all the extraneous words to transform it into poetry. To this day I am critical of writing that uses too many words.”
Ms. Kay was never phased by the awkwardness of our young work because she knew exactly what she was doing: extracting the beautiful pieces we didn’t even know existed. During this infamous applesauce period she continuously encouraged me to keep writing. To keep exploring. To keep putting all of my feelings down on the page. She saw something in there. No. She saw something in me. She never once rolled her eyes. Instead, she beamed and commended me on my use of texture. She gently guided my passion and feelings toward more precise descriptions on the page. And later on in the term when I asked if I could do one of my creative writing projects as a performance art piece about the threat of nuclear war and the importance of disarmament and the horror of mutually assured destruction, she cheerfully said yes and let me roll about on the floor wailing and screaming about mushroom clouds. I think she clapped the loudest.
Here is what Ms. Kay wrote in my yearbook:
CiCi- Smart, fun, outspoken – the ultimate brat – and that’s why you’re loved. Do well, CiCi - have a future of joy and artistic achievement. Love, Karyn KayMiraculously, despite all of those terrible poems and short stories, I did grow up to become a writer and achieve artistic achievement. And a few years ago, when she joined Facebook, we became friends and I got to tell her how thankful I was for her cheerleading and she got to tell me how proud she was of my books. She’d even read a few of them. And last March, because the timing was finally right, I went and spent the day with her doing a classroom visit to all of her afternoon English classes. Stepping into her classroom was like stepping back in time. It felt as though nothing had changed. Her classes were just as fun. She was just as beloved. She was just as inspiring. And I was talking to her and her kids about my books! I was her fait accompli. I had become something that she brought to one of her classes.
I’m not the only one who still feels her presence. All of her former students do. She was a champion of all creators and underdogs. She encouraged everyone. She wasn’t just an English teacher, she was THAT English teacher. We’ve all had one. The one who made us read that book that swayed us.
Last week Karyn Kay was murdered, beaten to death by her son in a horrific tragedy that defies comprehension. What we are left with is her legacy, one of inspiring thousands of kids to speak loudly and bravely with their art and with their words. To care about story and to be precise about it. Her death, which guts me, reminds me how important these teachers are; the ones who walk with us even as adults, whether we became artists or not. I feel a sadness for all of us, the students whose lives she touched, but more so I feel a profound grief for those that she will not touch. At 63, Karyn Kay is dead much too young.
Things will be done, of course. The alumni association has already informed us that a memorial fund will be set up. And at the reunion this June students will surely gather and talk about her being a favorite teacher and how they think of her fondly, for she was an unforgettable woman. Those kinds of English teachers are all unforgettable.
Still at the same time it’s easy to forget that teachers also have lives of their own, with issues, and struggles and challenges. They were kids too, and they had their own confused ambitions and applesauce loves. Teachers like Ms. Kay give themselves without baggage. It’s a beautiful and particular relationship, one that we rarely have in life. It’s unrequited without the family obligation. It’s caring and warm and one where the great ones nourish us, selflessly and at a time where we are budding. e We come in for a semester or two, and are profoundly changed, and then we go on our way. Mostly we don’t realize what we’ve taken with us until later. But those teachers are tireless. Every year they get a new crop of students who they encourage and nourish.
|Karyn Kay, from LaGuardia High School for the Arts yearbook|
So I say, for them, and for Ms. Kay, let’s go to class and not cut today. Let’s read that book that we were always told to read. Or the one that we failed to read or finish back then. (For me, that’ll be the Odyssey.) Let’s write a bad poem and maybe make it good. We’ll cut out all of those extraneous words. Let’s be thankful that everyday there are English teachers like Ms. Kay, fighting the good literary fight and cheerleading with a long lasting gusto, making readers and story lovers of us all. We’ll all write out loud and be big brats.