The One with the Monk

Monk Canterbury Tales

There was a monk — a splendid sort;

I saw that his sleeves were edged at the cuff with gray fur, and that the finest in the land; and to fasten his hood under his chin he had a very intricate pin made of gold; there was a love knot in the bigger end.

His head was bald and shone like glass, and his face did too as if he had been anointed.

When I was seventeen, I was a monk. Not a proper monk with vows, but I played one in our class re-enactment of The Canterbury Tales. As my co-monk and I donned our robes and hoods, we tried to practice our lines, but complained more than we rehearsed. The pin was sticking me. The robe was bulky and unflattering. The rope belt kept falling off. I wanted to hide under my desk until the day was over. Our teacher had said, “Twenty years from now, you may not remember much about The Canterbury Tales, but you’ll always remember the part you played.” She was right on both counts, with this post being proof of that. Turns out, she was right about a lot of things.

Mrs. Sutton taught British literature to high school seniors.  This was a difficult assignment for any teacher, I realize now.  We were sassy and pompous and thought we knew everything. After all we were seventeen years old, about to be unleashed on the world at large. When I received my class card at the beginning of the school year and saw her name listed next to literature, I groaned. Mrs. Sutton had a reputation for being one of the toughest teachers in the school and what I needed was to coast through the year so I could prepare for college entrance exams and applications. There would be no such thing on Mrs. Sutton’s watch. Day one: “You will work hard in my class, or you will not be in my class for long.”

Mrs. Sutton both scared me and fascinated me. She was beautiful in the way she carried herself with confidence. She kept her hair short and wore her reading glasses on a chain around her neck. This made her seem ancient, but now I know she had only been in her forties. She was always impeccably dressed, wearing chunky jewelry to balance her tall frame. Mrs. Sutton was an African American version of Bea Arthur.

After we had plowed through Macbeth and Hamlet, Pride and Prejudice and A Tale of Two Cities, she’d asked us what all of those books had in common. One classmate remarked that each author was able to portray accurately the human condition. (Brown noser, he was!)

“How do you think they became so keenly attuned?” she asked.

Silence all around.

Then she told us that she loved to people watch at the airport. She would often carry an empty suitcase and walk past the gates until she found a destination that appealed to her.* Today it might be Rome; tomorrow Rio. She asked herself, “What would it be like to be traveling to this place at this time?” Then she’d get out her journal, filling it with images that struck her as interesting: a little girl taking her first flight, a husband leaving on a long business trip, newlyweds off on their honeymoon. Mrs. Sutton chronicled emotions sweet and strange, sad and sappy. When the flight took off, she’d head home to sleep the night in her own bed and let the images swirl around in her mind.

After class, everyone discussed how Mrs. Sutton had gone completely mad. Who went to the airport, pretending to go somewhere? But I was enthralled. She was creating stories, and that was what I wanted to do. Mrs. Sutton made me realize that it was okay to be carried away by my curiosity. Because all stories begin with the question, “What would it be like if…?” Everything from page one to the end is the answer to that question.

“But ideas need space to grow,” she told us. “Pay attention.  If you’re always talking or distracting yourself, you’re not listening. That’s how Austen and Dickens and Shakespeare and all the great authors were able to write about universal truths — they were keen observers.”

Mrs. Sutton had no idea what a profound influence she had on me that day. Years later, when my book was published, a local bookstore was hosting my reading and she came. For her, it seemed time had stood still since high school instead of the decades that had passed. She was as classy as ever. I tried to thank her for giving me the tools to do something that I enjoy, and I told her how much it meant that she had come. She said, “It’s okay. I know, dear,” but I’m not sure she really did because despite having written a book, I couldn’t find the words to thank her enough.

*Clearly, this was a long, long time ago.

** This post is in response to the Daily Prompt.

Who would you like to thank? Have you had the opportunity to thank him/her? 

Have a great weekend, everyone! 

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44 comments

  1. Oh, I LOVE this story, Jackie! I didn’t have any high school teachers who inspired me, but I did have one college professor who did. How wonderful that you got to thank her at your reading? Hope you have a wonderful weekend!

    Hugs from Ecuador,
    Kathy

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    1. I have a feeling your little neighbor is being inspired by you right now — watching how you care for the birds. Maybe someday he’ll become a great conservationist, due in no small part to meeting you. You never know! 🙂

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  2. I had a few teachers that inspired me, Jackie, but none were on the level as your Mrs. Sutton. She sounds like the type that would inspire a film — but good luck getting permits to shoot at the airport in this day and age.

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  3. This was so sweet, Jackie! Seems like English teachers have the most influence; might be there is a more intimate relationship because of the writing aspect. They often read our thoughts and dreams. I think the good ones come to know their students pretty well. How cool that Mrs. Sutton came to your book signing. Bet she wasn’t surprised one bit that you had been published 🙂

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    1. Joy, You are right up there with Mrs. Sutton! I bet there are many students whose lives you’ve changed through the Healing Species program. Actually, can I say *know*? I know there are many students whose lives you’ve changed. They may not even realize it yet. 🙂

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  4. I love this essay and I wish I’d had a Mrs. Sutton — I laughed when I read that after class you all discussed how she’d gone mad. I could imagine my kids (well, didn’t have to imagine, HEARD them say similar things about teachers like her) talking with their friends. But for them those are the teachers who have made a difference. Like Mrs. Sutton. I think she’ll influence me, too, because I may adopt her suitcase to the airport idea. (p.s. have you ever noticed that the people who are the most influential in our lives are also the most humble? They’re awesome!)

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    1. So true, Julia! You never know what is going to resonate with that one person. What little thing you might say or do that stays with them for years.

      I think you’ll have to move your writing space from that coffee shop to the airport. 🙂

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  5. What an wonderful tribute to your teacher. Mrs. Sutton sounds fabulous. That’s the sort of teacher I strive to be. I suspect it takes a lot of confidence and knowing exactly who you are. Still working on that myself.

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  6. Oh my goodness – I love this in so many ways. I was just going through old papers and cards I’d saved and found one from a child I’d taught in middle school who wrote to thank me when he graduated high school. I started to cry, partly because I hadn’t remembered the letter until I saw it again (I seem to be so saddened that my memory can’t hold all of my experiences anymore) and partly because it was just so sweet and special. There were more letters and cards – one from my whole class of seventh graders that said, “We don’t know what’s wrong but we hope you feel better soon.” I don’t remember what had been happening – something unconnected with school that had me visibly upset, and they were so kind to let me know they cared. I’ve been reflecting about middle school a lot lately – both teaching it and being in it. Anyway, I love your writing. I love your reminiscing. And I would love to meet Mrs. Sutton.

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    1. How wonderful that your middle school student reached out to you after he was graduated from high school! You obviously had a profound influence on him. Amazing to be able to leave such an impression on someone. You’re terrific!

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  7. What a lovely post, Jackie! How cool that your teacher showed up!
    I had a very inspiring French teacher in college. When I got sick of reading, I would think of her reading the same French lit., only with glasses that looked like Coke bottles. She had to hold the page touching her nose so she could see it. I did thank her when I became a translator.

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    1. I love that image of your teacher with those thick glasses and still holding the book so close to her nose. It sounds like she was very passionate about French literature. It’s terrific that you were able to thank her.

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    1. Thanks so much, Darla! I was inspired by the letter to your dad, which made me think about the people who I’d like to thank who had a great influence on me. Mrs. Sutton came to mind immediately. So thank you!

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  8. What a lovely story. It’s amazing how people can leave such a legacy and continue to affect us.

    Someone who has really motivated me is a man who I studied for my dissertation. He had had a stroke 4 years ago and been told he would never walk or talk again. He was able to fight that prognosis, and takes himself down to the gym on his mobility scooter several times a week to keep himself strong, and goes to the stroke association to motivate others to fight through the pain and not give up. His attitude is amazing, not an ounce of self pity. I still visit him, happily spending an afternoon in his company, remembering and how I should be thankful for little things that we all take for granted. Any self pity I have is wiped away!

    Sorry I have rambled there! Your story just reminded me of these amazing people with a thirst for life. Hopefully we will have that affect on others!

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    1. Beautiful story, Imi! And a lovely reminder to live our lives with gratitude. There’s always something we can find to be thankful for. How wonderful that the man continues to inspire others!

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  9. Mrs. Sutton sounds like a fascinating lady, Ms. C (I find myself hoping she finds out about this post somehow – because… wow – how thrilling it would be to read something so thoughtful… to know she’s had that kind of impact)!
    🙂

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  10. What a wonderful gift a teacher like Mrs. Sutton is to a student. I love sitting in airports, and I love her idea of pretending to go places to soak up the atmosphere.

    Of course nowadays if you loiter around an airport with a bogus suitcase you’ll probably be arrested as a terrorist.

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  11. Found you via Lady of the Cakes! What a wonderful post. Mrs Sutton sounds like a fantastic teacher. LOVE the idea of sitting in airports to soak up the atmosphere. Of course, these days you wouldn’t get anywhere near the gates without a boarding pass… and probably get arrested if you spent too much time hanging around with a suitcase but never actually checking in.

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  12. Thank you for stopping by and leaving a comment. Mrs. Sutton imparted a great life lesson to be observant and soak up the atmosphere.

    You’re so right about going to the airport with an empty suitcase. You’d definitely be labeled a “suspicious” character these days.

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