When I read tragic news, I imagine the deceased’s family and friends might read the articles and find the summary so trite and generic. But I understand that news is about boiling things down so that strangers can stay informed, then move on with the rest of their lives. I just never thought that the news would be about someone I once knew.
Let me define “knew,” because that word is nuanced, and I would never want to exaggerate a connection when there are family, colleagues, and close friends mourning someone they interacted with every day. I knew Ms. Yamamoto in the sense that I was in her classroom for nearly a year, hearing her calm, hey-life’s-going-to-work-out voice most days of the week. I knew her as the teacher who possessed both fine qualities of John Keating (Robin Williams) in Dead Poets Society, and Bill Anderson in The Perks of Being a Wallflower; she was the storm that lit my passion for literature and the calm that quieted my frenetic worries as a high school junior. Later, I knew her a bit more through her poetry and blog posts, which, when written by a true writer like Ms. Yamamoto, makes you feel as if your souls are connecting for an instant.
Her death makes me feel a type of regret that I’ve tried to avoid—that’s why I’m always chasing my dreams, not taking my aging parents for granted, and treasuring small wonders. It’s too late to ever connect with her again, and now I only have my memories of Ms. Yamamoto.
But they’re great and precious and I want to write about them because I think it’s a fitting way for me to grieve.
In AP Language and Composition, an environment where it was typical to measure myself against peers and feel pressured to chase perfection, Ms. Yamamoto eased my mind. I never felt like the outcast, despite feeling different from my amazing classmates—future lawyers, doctors, dentists, and scientists. The divisions that separated us—real or imagined— disappeared. I was much more of a listener, but I felt included in inside jokes like “I like to eat blood in the morning” and sentences that included the word “bosom,” which always had us breaking out in laughter. Ms. Yamamoto would indulge us, sometimes exasperated, sometimes confused.
Ms. Yamamoto assigned us the usual homework and we read Ethan Frome, The Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby, The Old Man and the Sea (we were, after all, an AP class). But there was one assignment I adored: Occasional Papers, something she might have picked up from her own time as a student or from a fellow teacher. Occasional Papers were sparked by occasions or inspirations or things important to you. You. That was Ms. Yamamoto’s focus. She saw each of us as individuals. I’m not saying that other teachers didn’t acknowledge this—but perhaps she stood out the most because in a time when I was losing my Me-ness, she had offered me a way to find myself again.
In one essay, I wrote about always losing my Cheshire Public Library card. Another one was about music, I think. With each paper, I began to see my classmates and their passions.
Ms. Yamamoto might not have known this—or maybe she had; high school students can be really shitty secret-keepers—but a classmate named her Admiral, after someone from some war, and that became her nickname. So we, by association, became her Soldiers.
(Or Souljas—because we were teenagers and utterly ridiculous.)
She took pride in us. That was undeniable. Ms. Yamamoto had an office—or the English Department did—where each student was able to hang a poster listing their college acceptances. And that made us proud of ourselves. The next year, I think we tried to keep the class together, gathering occasionally in the office. And I think after college, most of us met up for hibachi. It was nice, but it wasn’t the same; we all seemed to know that shine was gone, couldn’t be replicated again. But in a way, doesn’t that show the value of our time together? How perfect it was? How perfect Ms. Yamamoto was to bring us all together?
Ms. Yamamoto and I became Facebook friends when I started college. I can’t remember who Friended whom. Maybe I did in a rare moment of bravery. She read some of my blog posts and said she loved my voice and when I wrote about our class, she wrote, “You guys were a really special class.” Wow, she got a nose ring? (Or was it always there?) In turn, I followed her blog. Based on some posts, she was writing to work through some things–like all of us. I should have messaged her more often. Liked more of her posts. Emailed her for coffee (Cheshire is not so inaccessible from Manhattan).
I still have her copy of The Elements of Style. I even named a teacher in my YA novel after her. She’s this no-bullshit art teacher and mentor–a woman small in stature but fiery and compassionate in her voice and manner. I couldn’t wait to publish the novel, then return one day to the fun house-shaped halls of Cheshire High School, place it in her hands, and say, “Don’t be freaked out, I know we haven’t been in touch much, but you inspired someone in this book.”
As news outlets report on Ms. Yamamoto’s passing, I worry that my vision of her will chip away. So, as her still adoring student, I’ll remember her here.
My mind is cluttered with the humiliation from awkward conversations with my crush, looming tests, and other responsibilities. But Ms. Yamamoto tells us that someone has an Occasional Paper. Her voice calms me immediately. We set down our pens and pencils and shift our uncomfortable metal chairs to face the front. The person with an Occasional Paper chooses to stand or remain sitting. Smooths out a wrinkled notebook page or unfolds a computer printout. I look at Ms. Yamamoto who waits patiently. Silence nets the room. I breathe at my classmate’s inhale, and before long, a singular voice takes up my mind, redefining a language I thought I knew so well—until now.