I was absolutely wretched in high school. I didn’t give a shit. I was mad almost all of the time, and if I wasn’t mad than I was uncertain and scared - and that was far, far worse. I slept for 14 hour stretches; I spoke far too loudly about things I knew nothing about; one time I threw a stereo system out of my open bedroom window just to hear the plastic-y, cracking, crashing sound it made when it hit the driveway in front of my house. It was less satisfying than I’d hoped it would be, and that’s pretty much an analogy for my teen years.
By the time I was a Senior I’d managed to lower the expectation level of my parents and teachers into the negatives - and for good reason. I thought nothing of consequences, little about reactions, and certainly less about what might happen if I decided to sleep through or otherwise skip the majority of my class schedule for an entire 180 day period. I led a wholly unexamined life (which seems implausible, now, to someone who suffers from all the general neuroses/self-obsession of a 32-year-old white woman), and while there are, of course, a million different things to blame this on, I’m going with this:
Everything I loved in high school I held close, like a secret. When you’re a teenager - and one who thinks both too much and too little - it feels as though everyone is looking at you all of the time, and the only worse feeling is when you think no one is looking at you at all. What I loved to most was to be alone and to read and draw and to watch movies and to stare at the ceiling above my bed and think about whatever it was I used to think about, and while those inclinations haven’t much changed, I fought against them tooth and nail - except when I didn’t need to, and that mostly took place in Patrick Welsh’s classroom.
For every school day that I didn’t wake up until noon, I found myself rushing to make it to TC by 1:10 for English. For every class in which I was shocked awake by the bell, head-over-crossed-arms-on-the-desk and sleeping, I was arm-raised and interrupting my classmates to share my opinions on poetry and short stories and FAULKNER. For every Math textbook that I left under a desk, never to be seen again, I spent opposite hours with every novel we tackled in his class that year, reading them as if they were about to go away, and then starting them over again. And as I read back through this essay it’s kind of looking like this was all because of my own inclinations and secret interests and buried, secret smarts - but I promise you, it was not.
Mr. Welsh treated me like an adult, and this made all of the difference. His classroom was a place where where as long as you believed what you were saying it would not and could not count against you - but oh man, you better be able to back it up, so learn to do that - and quick. Within the safety of fifth period I found myself defending my interpretation of Adrienne Rich’s “Living In Sin” in ways that I would never feel comfortable emoting in any other arena; I never failed to express how Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s straightforward jazz made me feel emotions, even when I was having trouble being moved by much else. It was there that I watched “The Godfather” and learned that movies could be film and that film was actually art. It was there that I began to put a little pride in my pocket and to carry it around with me, because for a long time I hadn’t had any.
A few years ago I found myself back in the Alexandria Public School System. I was substitute teaching, and in the middle of an extended job at TC Williams. A day or two into the gig I’d asked where Mr. Welsh’s classroom was; it wasn’t for a few more days that I’d worked up the courage to stop by. I’m still not sure the reason for my shyness, but I think in large part it had to do with the fact that I’d never really thanked him for what he did for me. In retrospect, I was so fucking close to becoming one of those kids who had every advantage but who let it all just GO, and for no good reason other than I was sorely in need of that one outside observer to just look me in the eye and tell me that I was worth something, but that I needed to stand up straight and to start proving it. It had been a long time that my delinquency had been put to the side in favor of what I might actually have to OFFER, and it was one of a very few things that got me heading back towards where I should have been the whole entire time.
So thank you, Patrick Welsh. I can only speak for myself but I cannot imagine that there’s not an army other other now-adults who don’t have exactly that same story. Thank you for your sense of humor and your lack of tolerance for bullshit. Thank you for expecting more. Thank you for giving more - and congratulations on making it through more than forty years of dealing with, well, absolutely wretched high schoolers. I’m very, very proud to have been one of them.