She was an English teacher. She was a hard-nosed demander of excellence. She knew excellence when she saw it. She saw potential when nobody else could. She is a hero. She is one of mine.
Of all the people in my existence to-date, she is one of the few that had a strong, positive hand in shaping who I’ve turned out to be. There have been plenty of shapers, most of them in a generally negative role in my life. She was not one of those. As a teenager, she recognized that the gifts I’d been given were valuable, and told me so, and demanded excellence from me, when few in my life acknowledged the same. She demanded that I write, and that I write well. She required a level of writing from me that she didn’t require from those who couldn’t have met that standard, because she knew that I could. She pulled myself out of me at a time in my life when almost everyone else was telling me to keep myself to myself. She is a hero. She is one of mine.
She was never moved at my anger at her unfairness toward me and others with my gifts. I’ll never forget the look of "I don’t care what you think of yourself" that would instantly change her face from casual disinterest to steely, almost malevolent rejection of my objections to how hard she was being. She taught us to write, and never rejected what we’d written, only how we’d written it. At a time when I couldn’t tell the difference, she would leave my pages running blood-red with ink, and end it with "You can do better." I hated it. I needed it. She was right. She is a hero. She is one of mine.
Poetry was something that… decent boys… didn’t write. There was something wrong with boys that wrote poetry. Piano was something for girls to learn to play. Football and golf, motorcycles and handtools, those were things for boys to learn to play. I wrote poetry. I wrote essays. I wrote music. I played piano. I sang, and spent time reflecting, and loved flowers, and watched clouds float by and never broke a bone and hated fighting and played with chemistry sets and microscopes and telescopes and studied the theories of the universe and had few friends and fewer social skills. She saw that the only outlet I had was a pen and a piece of paper. She told me that it was alright. That I was alright. She is a hero. She is one of mine.
So I wrote when she required it. I didn’t share it with anyone. It wasn’t safe. She never violated me. So many teachers violated me. She was not one of them. Even when she was tearing my writing apart, she didn’t ridicule what I’d said, she didn’t scoff, or dismiss, or tell me I was wrong for thinking such things… feeling such things. Of course, I was in many instances, but she was content to let me get it out so I could see it and understand myself, sometimes years later.
I wonder who I would have turned out to be had I not learned to out my feelings on paper. Crippled is certainly what I would have been. I was crippled enough as it was. My high school years were very difficult for me, in many ways. You couldn’t pay me to go back. At the time, she certainly didn’t hold the title of "bright spot in this four-year abyss" as far as I was concerned. But in retrospect, she was just that. Years later, I was teaching classes at Illinois State University. I was a contract lecturer. I had an office in a closet off of another closet at the end of the world on the fourth floor of Stevenson Hall. One evening as I was having office hours, I heard a familiar voice. It was hers. She was teaching a class in the English department, and her office was close to mine. We exchanged greetings, had a few words, and that was that. After that chance encounter, I decided that I needed to thank her for the impact she’d had on my life, and so I wrote a poem to her. I don’t think I still have a copy of it, but I remember it ending with something like "You helped me to know that it was ok / to be / me!" I taped it to her office door. I saw her after that, and she told me with a beaming smile that it had made her day. I’m sure it wasn’t the only time I’d seen that smile, but it was likely the only time I’d seen it focused on me. I’m glad I did that. That was many years ago, now. It was the next-to-last time I ever saw her.
Connie Link died two weeks ago, after a long battle with brain cancer. I was only vaguely aware that she was ill. I had no idea that she’d died. Her memorial service came and went without me. I learned of her passing today, surreptitiously. It’s an ache that I’m having a hard time finding the words to write. It gives me joy to say that I knew her. It gives me sadness to know she’s gone. I hope that somewhere in her effects there’s a piece of paper with a poem on it written by a grateful former student that tells her of his appreciation for what she accomplished in his life. I hope she looked at it more than once. I hope she knows, even now… I’m proud to have been her student. I’m proud to have known her.
They filled the gymnasium at the high school for her memorial service. People from all over the country came. She was praised and remembered with fondness, I’m sure. I add these words to those spoken there. She is a hero. She is one of mine.