Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Dear Miss Garvey

There is a disconnect for me between my childhood self and my adult self. I have a lot of memories of my childhood. Many are really great. Like going to work with my mom in the mornings. She’d carry me to the car in my pjs, it was 5:30 am, still dark. We would get blueberry muffins from Whistlestop in Georgetown, right across the Redding border. I’d fall back asleep while she drove but I’d always wake up right before we passed the George Washington Bridge. The light was a certain way because the sun had risen and Morning Addition had just come on NPR. Then I’d eat my muffin. Sometimes I’d cover the blueberries with the white muffin parts and pretend I couldn’t taste the blueberries. Now as an adult, I can’t experience the GW Bridge, Morning Addition, or blueberry muffins without remembering those drives like flashbacks. I remember making pancakes and having lasagna food fights with Dad. The Thanksgiving my sister cut the tip of her finger shaving brussel sprouts on the mandolin. There’s lot of food memories. Shooting my bow and arrow in the backyard with my brother. Singing my youngest sister to sleep. Ice skating, my first Broadway show, cousin sleepovers, getting a puppy, exploring the woods. My childhood memories flow.

But I try to access my middle years - 12 to 24ish - and I experience a fuzzy connection. It’s as if the part of the memories that establishes them as mine has been damaged, like the signature’s been smudged away or water’s been spilled on the homing device. I remember all the musicals I ever did, most of my teachers, how scared I was of hurting myself on the high jump, what crushes I had, my first kiss (his name is Andy Wahl, and it was walking back from a camp fire in the middle of the woods. It was very wet but nice). I accept these memories as mine because nothing else more clear exists in my head.

I recently found out that Janice Garvey, my English teacher for my Freshman and Junior years of High School, is retiring at the end of the year. I felt old when I heard this but not much else. A classmate of mine (who's recently published her first book) is gathering past students of Miss Garvey’s for a small celebration and was nice enough to invite me. She requested that we write some small anecdote about Garvey that she’d print into a book to give to her.So I froze up when I read her request. All those memories are fuzzy. When I think back on Miss Garvey I don’t remember much. I remember my impression of her the first week of Freshman year. She was a “hippie”, a beautiful smile, long, grey hair tied back low at her neck with a scrunchie, which may have been light grey or white. She always wore skirts. She always had classical music playing. In the corner of her room hot water, tea bags, and a powdered milk substitute were available for a quarter on the honor system. I drank it often because it tasted like maturity. A nice light filtered through her windows. The tables were arranged in an oval shape so we could all face each other as equals. I remember in that first week with her wanting, like a hunger, to be more equal than anyone else. 

And that’s it for happy memories: sensory imprints. The larger chunk of my Garvey memories - which are fragmented at best - are of me sinking to the bottom of the class and out of the light of her affection. I have no idea how early this started. Flashes of writing assignments with more red marking than anyone else’s. Feeling very distant. I never had anything good to say. I began sitting away from the smart people and closer to the tea pot. I sank.

I think back on her now a feel a deep sadness. I wanted to be better for her - a better student, writer, person, all of the above - but I didn’t know how. I hoped that if I maintained the facade well enough I’d get by and she might still like me. I spent most of my time in High School hoping I wouldn’t be discovered for the fraud I was.

A small part of me knows I wasn’t as much of a disappointment as I remember. After all, hadn’t I scored a 4 of out 5 on my Junior Creative Writing Portfolio and hadn’t my name been displayed on the Honor Boards near the Principal’s office with the rest of my friends who scored 4s and 5s? I slaved over those pieces. Hadn’t I been accepted into AP English and scored well enough on my AP tests to place out of all my of college English requirements?

One of my last memories of Miss Garvey was my Senior year. She had found me in the hallway and asked where I was going for college. I told her I was going to be attending Syracuse University for Musical Theater. I remember that her face dropped, maybe she kept a smile but I could see her disappointment so clearly. I can guess she didn’t think a theater career was worthwhile or didn’t think I’d succeed. In my memory I felt that I had once again let her down, nothing I would do would ever be good enough. 

I'm grown up enough now to feel the distance she must have felt from me. Did she try to help? Did she try to understand me as badly as I needed her to? Was she trying to find me? I don’t remember. I know that memories aren’t a strict record of what happened but of how I experienced those moments and how I felt about them then. I always knew she was a good teacher. I wish I had known how to open myself to that. I think now I feel some portion of the sadness she might have felt about me.

If you’re wondering how I feel about Miss Garvey nowadays, especially in the last three weeks that I’ve a) been writing for this blog, and b) known about her retirement - the answer is that I don’t know yet. It’s going to take more than a blog entry to rediscover and then redefine my feelings about High School, aka The Lost Years. I think I feel some portion of the sadness she might have felt about me. We had a missed connection that might have been something really great. 

I did a google search for Janice Garvey to see if there were any pictures online that I could post here (and to see if my memory of her was at all accurate. Where's the long, grey hair?) Turns out the high school lit mag did a "Teacher of the Week" bio on her. She's from Maine, went to Penn State then NYU for her graduate degree, she loves Jon Stuart, and you know what else? It says she always wanted to be an actress.

Janice Garvey



  1. Kelsey I can remember the whistle stop so well, I lived just a street over and up a winding hill. Every time I see those tracks and the little red building I feel and remember home. After leaving redding for Newtown I attended some classes in New York, I would drive down to the station, park and get one of those blueberry muffins. I wpuld then wait for the train in late summer and fall. Something about that trek through the woods and into the city and onto grand central was magical. The leaves and trees both green and then crimson into gold would frame a love for the city I still can remember. But what made it nice was having started from that small town. I don't remember those years after RES and into Joel Barlow that we'll. I always thought that fog was some was emotionaly induced. Now as I'm older I think it's because it takes some age before you understand the value of a good memory. It's funny because I have amazing memories of military training and my adventures in Bridgeport. I wish I could take 30 year old me and give 16 year old me some solid advice, but truth me told I think we become the people we wish we where in high school.
    I was never one for English class, but Miss Garvey's class was a welcome time and an enjoyable change, her joy and my mother's funny and enjoyable stories of the English department are things I can remember. That and art class, you know now that I think of it programming as well. I will say this may of us move away, we lose touch with our friends from the past, Lord knows I did to some effect. I was blessed with two luxuries in that department, I got to work with Chris for 10 years, and I hung out with Cam for that time as well but the second blessing is the odd twists of fate that happen: cam took the military as a good idea after myself. Three years later and two totally different career fields and I find myself here in Virginia hanging out with him again. Of all the places we could have ended up fate gets it right again. Friends find you, old or new they find you and remind you of good memories and or to make new ones.

  2. Thanks for sharing, Taylor. I love our little town, too. I like what you said about "the value of a good memory." That's a really nice way of looking at it. Please tell Cameron hello for me. I haven't seen him in ages. Glad to hear you're doing well :)

    - Kelsey