My former student, Dan Patterson, was in town with his family this week. Sitting in my goofy little office with his wife and kids, he observed that it had been twenty-five years since he took “Shoupabout,” the writing class I taught at Broad Ripple High School. Dan was in one of the first groups, when it was a daily class. Later, it became an independent study class scheduled through the school’s “Walkabout” program that provided internship opportunities for students. (Thus, the name “Shoupabout” was born.)
Of course, Dan’s observation brought a flood of memories about “Shoupabout”—one of my very favorites being the birthday party his class threw for me. We had a field trip to Crown Hill Cemetery scheduled that day, and I thought I’d be privately enjoying the irony of visiting a cemetery on my birthday. But when we got there, they surprised me with a birthday cake (with gray icing and “R.I.P.” written on it); a copy of Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One; and my own personal epitaph, composed by a very unusual guy in the class named John Smith, which read:
HERE SHE LIES, COLD AS ICE
BARBARA SHOUP, SHE WAS NICE
SHE WROTE MANY A BOOK WITH NARY A PLOT
AND NOW SHE HAS ONE IN WHICH TO ROT.
The party, being with my students on that day, made me so happy.
It would take days to write about each and every moment with students that filled me up with the most exquisite kind of light and brought the gift of knowing that teaching was the one thing in the world that I could pretty much count on doing right. Over the years, my Broad Ripple students made me happy, sad, curious, proud, grateful, compassionate, and full of wonder. Sometimes they made me crazy. They always made me a better person than I might have been.
But who could have predicted the unexpected blessing of continuing to know so many of these students into their adult lives, to watch them search for themselves and—if they searched hard enough and were lucky—eventually find what they longed for when they were young? Even at sixteen, Dan Patterson knew that a family was what he wanted more than anything. Now here he was, sitting in a place where that was once just a dream, with the fabulous Jen, Kate, and Al. How cool is that?
Honestly, it made me as happy as that goofy party did twenty-five years ago.
When I interviewed Amy Hempel a few years ago, she said that her fiction teacher, Gordon Lish, challenged his students with a variety of questions to help trigger stories, including “Where in your life are you most yourself? Can you sound like that on the page?”
I knew instantly what my answer to the first of those questions would have been: teaching. As for the second, if I ever do sound like that self on the page it’s when I am writing from the point of view of one of my teenage characters. There’s a bit of Dan Patterson—and every other high school kid I ever taught and loved—in every single one of them.