by Swati Swoboda
“Sit anywhere you like,” said the tall, blonde woman standing in front of the classroom. She carried herself with confidence, but not snobbery, wearing a black turtleneck, checkered skirt, black tights, with brown clogs. Some of the kids in the class already knew her. She was their Varsity cheerleading coach.
I found myself a seat with my friends in the back of the classroom.
She introduced herself: “I am Mrs. Black, your 10th Grade English Teacher.”
I took a deep breath.
I had struggled in English for as long as I could remember, with my first assignment the year before, in 9th grade, fetching a big fat F, garnering a D+ for that term.
And I had only managed to get into 9th grade by passing the 8th grade English exam with a whopping 43%. Not a surprise, given that I was in “Basic English” which was somewhere between ESL and “Regular English.”
My first year in the US, in 7th Grade, was just as miserable where, after failing my first writing assignment, I spent the rest of the year toiling in after school help.
When I had lived in Dubai, I did better in Arabic than English, despite having been introduced to Arabic only in 4th grade.
Before that, India was no better as I would frequently get into trouble in 3rd grade for conversing in Hindi despite the school’s new policy of “English-only.”
“Are there any page or word limits for assignments? Do we have to type them?” someone from the front of the class asked Mrs Black.
“No,” she paused. “You all will have to forget everything you have learned in English so far. I don’t care what color, font, paper, pen you use. It only has to be legible. You could write in crayons for all I care.”
My jaw dropped.
My last teacher would count the number of words in your paper then dock points for every word you went over the word limit.
English all of a sudden became a subject I could get into. From that point on, I would spend hours making my assignments look playful with colourful text, artistic layouts—and yes, sometimes, I’d use crayons.
Writing was now fun, but what about reading? Mrs. Black could change how we wrote assignments that she graded, but she’d have no control over what books we had to read as part of the school board curriculum.
“Ethan Frome will be our first book,” said Mrs. Black.
I groaned. It already sounded boring.
I waited for Mrs. Black to tell us what a classic the book was: How it would broaden our minds.
“The book is incredibly boring and depressing. And the main character, Zeena, is a bitch.”
B-I-T-C-H. Yep, she said it in class. I now wanted to read the book to see how much of a bitch Zeena really was.
That year, I got a 97, an A, one of the highest grades in the class. Every year after, I got an A in English. It no longer would be a subject that I was afraid of.
Now, over 20 years later, I still remember the book Ethan Frome. And all the books we read in Mrs. Black’s class. All because one teacher had the courage to be unconventional, to bring her honest self in front of us every day—so we could do the same.
Cover image created by Zehra Nawab. Illustrated portrait by Sam Trieu.
Swati Swoboda arrived in Canada at the age of 17 after a 36-hour trip around the world from India over the wrong ocean…sometimes that’s the only flight available. Swati went to elementary school in India, middle school in UAE, high school in US, and university in Canada. She is often at loss on how to answer, “where are you from?” so she defaults to “Waterloo,” where she has been living for the last 12 years with her husband and three kids.