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Lift Every Voice: Walking My Own Path

Courtesy NCAAP.

I was used to getting red-ink marks in the margins of my school essays until I met my high school English teacher, Linda Christensen. For our final projects, Ms. Christensen would write two-page letters with praise and feedback about revisions. I had never had a teacher be so thoughtful and intentional with my writing. I didn’t know what to call it at the time, but reflecting back, she was giving us editorial letters.

I had always been a writer. It was a hobby — scribbling poems and short stories in spiral notebooks. But Ms. Christensen was grooming me to be an author. Her comments weren’t just about fixing grammatical errors. She wrote questions in the margins (not in red ink); she underlined passages that resonated with her. Her letters always started with how proud she was that I was brave enough to write my truth, how she saw potential in me. I savored her words — read them over and over.

I needed this care, this validation. I was the last Watson sibling to attend Jefferson High School in Portland, Oregon. My sister Cheryl was known for being one of the star writers of the school newspaper. Trisa had participated in two study-abroad programs and tutored her peers in Spanish. Dyan was valedictorian and played the clarinet, saxophone, and trumpet. My sisters were involved in all types of extracurricular activities — cheerleading, jazz ensemble, volleyball, track, student government. I was the little one following them like a shadow, clapping and cheering at games and performances. I felt proud when one of their teachers said, “I can’t wait to have you in my class!”

But adjusting to high school was challenging, and I felt insecure. On the first day of freshman year, a teacher greeted me with a hug, saying, “You have some big shoes to fill.” She showed me the trophy case in the hallway filled with shiny plaques. I recognized several of the engraved names, especially: Cheryl, Trisa, and Dyan. I was inspired, yes. But mostly intimidated.

I liked journalism, but I wanted to make up stories, not report about real ones. I was mediocre at Spanish. I got good grades but was not a 4.0 student. I loved music, but I wasn’t good at playing the clarinet or saxophone. I tried to walk in my sisters’ shoes, but they didn’t fit. I stumbled in them, was clumsy in them.

And then I met Ms. Christensen.

Even though she knew my sisters, she didn’t compare me to them. She wanted to get to know me not just as a Watson, but as Renée. “What is your story?” she’d ask.

There were all kinds of stories being told about me and youth like me. Stories about our neighborhood, our Blackness. It was so powerful to have a teacher see me — for me. Not based on a statistic, not even based on the good reputation of my siblings. She invited me to tell my own story. She created a space in her classroom where we questioned what was happening in the world, where we wrote poems in response to injustice.

I was afraid to say I wanted to be an author. That wasn’t a career that anyone I knew had pursued. Ms. Christensen told me that I could be what I couldn’t see, that it wasn’t an impossible dream. And she pushed me. Her editorial letters, her high expectation of me to hone the craft of writing, encouraged me to take my raw talent seriously. In her classroom, I found my voice and no longer hid in the shadows. In her classroom, I realized I didn’t have to fill my sisters’ shoes. I could walk in my own.

From the May/June 2019 Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: CSK Book Awards at 50. Find more information about ordering copies of the special issue.

Renée Watson About Renée Watson

Renée Watson is the winner of the 2018 Coretta Scott King Author Award for Piecing Me Together, published by Bloomsbury Children’s Books. Her acceptance speech was delivered at the annual conference of the American Library Association in New Orleans on June 24, 2018.

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Comments

  1. Sonja Grove says:

    As a teacher, and one who has admired Linda for a very long time, I am so inspired by your beautiful tribute. I was trained in teaching writing by Linda, and I have never forgotten those lessons. Even though I may nite some errors, errors, I always start with what is beautiful and thoughtful from my amazing students. Linda reminded us that everyone has a beautiful writing voice, and your success is what each of us would love to observe, but simply inspiring our students to appreciate themselves, just as you do, that is a gift. You are definitely a blessing.

  2. Sonja Grove says:

    As a teacher, and one who has admired Linda for a very long time, I am so inspired by your beautiful tribute. I was trained in teaching writing by Linda, and I have never forgotten those lessons. Even though I may note some errors, I always begin underscoring the remarkable and thoughtful from my amazing students. Linda reminded us that everyone has a beautiful writing voice, and your success is what each of us desire, though your success is beyond most, simply inspiring our students to appreciate themselves, just as you do, that is my gift. You are definitely a blessing.

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