It’s a long story. As are most stories worth telling.
This story started more than a decade ago.
It’s about a remarkable high school teacher. And a book. And a girl. And the fact that everyone should be so fortunate as to have a teacher or two who is just-so-absolutely-over-the-top-inspiring as Mrs. Brunsvold.
When I was a junior in high school, I was attending college part time. Simultaneously scheduling high school and college classes was a bit tricksy because my high school operated on trimesters and my college operated on semesters. Ultimately, this meant that I ended up short one high school credit hour during the third trimester of eleventh grade.
It was a total no-brainer to register for Mrs. Brunsvold’s Contemporary Literature class. I loved – I respected - Mrs. Brunsvold. She was the teacher who challenged students to change, to morph, into their greatest possible selves. She was the teacher who didn’t fear personal investment. Who was insanely and wonderfully dedicated to her classes. Who didn’t shirk responsibility and extra work. Who embraced difficult people because she was willing to recognize atypical potential.
Mrs. Brunsvold embodied the characteristics for which great teachers are known. Dead Poets’ Society. Mr. Holland’s Opus. Lean on Me. That was her caliber. And, even though I haven’t seen her since I graduated thirteen years ago, I’m certain this is the kind of teacher Mrs. Brunsvold remains today. Engaged. Competent. Hard-working. Intelligent. Committed. Motivating. Confident.
So, when I needed one more credit, of course I registered for Mrs. Brunsvold’s course. Plus, her Contemporary Literature class was all. about. reading. Reading.
Reading for students who eschewed reading.
Which wasn’t me. Because I loved to read.
But I’d overheard Mrs. Brunsvold talking about the course during a study hall I’d had the previous year.
I knew she’d painstakingly selected every book.
Every book. Her picks. Every. Single. Book.
The class would be operated like a book club.
A book club of fun-to-read hits that Mrs. Brunsvold had personally selected.
I couldn’t not take the class.
I didn’t expect my classmates to be intellectually stimulating. These were not the students in my advanced classes. Most weren’t seen as college material. Few did homework. All had a self-proclaimed hatred of reading. I assumed the classroom discussions would be worthless.
But I wasn’t there for the students. I was there for the books. And the teacher.
I was wrong, though. Because the classroom discussions were surprisingly interesting. And I realized how intellectually conceited I was. Which really said a lot about Mrs. Brunsvold. She engaged the class with her genuine passion. She inspired non-readers to enjoy literature. She showed me how to appreciate diversity of thought. She imbued respect, regardless of academic ambitions, class load or GPA. It didn’t matter I was taking college coursework. I was the same as everyone else in her class. And, what’s more, I recognized how I was the same as everyone else.
It was a lovely class. Not just because I got to read books for school credit. No. It was lovely because Mrs. Brunsvold’s students – myself included - came alive through the magic of literature. Together.
And I discovered the depth of students I had previously judged as irrelevant.
Yes. I discovered that every individual is worthwhile. That everyone has valuable opinions. That I can learn more new ideas and worldviews and concepts from someone who is very unlike me than from anyone else.
That lesson would have been enough. But, aside from that epiphany, there were also two books that profoundly influenced me. Two titles remain burned into my memory. I still remember being incredibly moved by the characters. I still remember being changed by the words I read.
The first book was My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok. Loved it. Highly recommend it.
The second was by Orson Scott Card.
I remember the groaning. “You’re making us read science fiction?” the students moaned. “That’s for geeks. This is going to be horrible. We might have liked your other books – we’ll give you that – but we’ll never like science fiction.”
Mrs. Brunsvold smiled, a tiny bit patronizingly, and said, “It’s a genre, folks. We’re reading books from a variety of genres because you never know what you might like. And I think you’ll like Ender’s Game.”
The class insisted they would certainly not like Ender’s Game. Not science fiction. No way. But they respected Mrs. Brunsvold. So they took their books home and dutifully read the assigned chapters and came back the following day absolutely entranced by the book.
The book itself changed me. But the classes’ response to the book also changed me.
Years later, I re-read Ender’s Game and stayed up until 3 am finishing a story to which I already knew the ending. I then gave it to ten year-old Ezekiel. I leant it out to my best friend. Twice. Because we’re losing our memories. I lent it to my father-in-law. And my sister-in-law. I recommended it to a colleague. And then I asked my father-in-law to return my copy so I could lend it to my manager.
Turns out my father-in-law had given my book to one of his graduate students. But he’d purchased the rest of the series and handed them over to eleven year-old Ezekiel. Because this is what happens when you read a life-altering story. You share. You share because you cannot bear not to share. You share because the story is still reverberating throughout your head, your heart, your soul. You share because the words you’ve read will permeate your entire existence until they’ve exploded to someone else.
And, as you share, you discover others who have been similarly transformed. Other kindred spirits who understand the weighty value of the author’s work. Like the friend I accidentally texted when I was trying to message my father-in-law about borrowing the book. Turns out, my friend had already read Ender’s Game. And he informed me that the rest of the Ender series was equally as good. More philosophical, but just as good, albeit in an entirely different way.
“No way,” I messaged back, my father-in-law forgotten. No way in hell is the rest of the series even readable.
You see, I remember Mrs. Brunsvold telling my class that the subsequent books weren’t nearly as captivating as the first. And, because I couldn’t imagine destroying Ender Wiggin with a sub-par continuation of his saga, I immediately resolved to never. touch. another. book. in. that. series. again.
So it took some convincing. Or maybe just some boredom. But, now that I’ve read all of the Ender series and the Shadow saga companion novels, I’ve discovered that perhaps I misunderstood Mrs. Brunsvold’s evaluation.
The rest of the books aren’t as exciting, as riveting, as breathtakingly moving as Ender’s Game. They aren’t exactly an enjoyably thrilling read, which was the point of her Contemporary Literature class. The remaining nine books are intriguing, though, nonetheless. Just at a higher, more cerebral, level. More pain. Less triumph. But more meaning woven throughout the writing.
They are for the person who has loved and lost. The person who has been forced to look for meaning amidst sadness and agony. The person who has made the hard decisions of life…and not always succeeded at making the right decision. The person who understands that living is full of disappointments. Sadness. Grief.
Which is why I’m insanely thankful for that fact that I took Mrs. Brunsvold’s offhand comment entirely out-of-context.
You see, had I read those books as a seventeen year-old high school student, I would have thought that I understood them.
But I would have been wrong. Egregiously so.
The girl that I was in high school assumed she had seen hardship. She had been diagnosed with lupus, struggled with identity, feared failure. The person that I was assumed she’d survived significant angst. She thought she’d experienced devastating pain. But the girl that I was hadn’t fallen in love, hadn’t faced failure, hadn’t fought to keep the children of her soul to which she had no legal rights, hadn’t been disappointed, hadn’t struggled through the daily difficulties inherent to a worthwhile marriage, hadn’t experienced the impossibility of raising children, hadn’t witnessed heartache, hadn’t lost an infant child.
And, perhaps even more crucial, the girl that I was hadn’t realized that she would be lucky – blessed – to experience excruciating pain throughout her life. That there is a kind of grief that is a good thing. That there is a type of grief that is inversely related to joy:
"Excuse me if I'm missing something here," said Bean, "but as far as I can tell, marrying and having children has brought you nothing but grief…"
"Yes," [Mrs. Wiggin] said. "Now you're getting it."
"Where's the joy? That's what I'm not getting."
"The grief is the joy," said Mrs. Wiggin. "I have someone to grieve for. Whom do you have?"
Whom do you have?
I cried several times throughout the series. Mostly because I’d think of Samuel, the baby we lost. And those books helped me heal, as I realized that the excruciating sadness of losing him is also the very thing that makes living so very worthwhile.
Joy comes from being part of something important enough to grieve.
And I’m lucky enough to have many things for which I’d grieve.
Thank you, Mrs. Brunsvold. For teaching me even now, thirteen years later.