I like to think that we all have a favorite teacher from our past, someone who influenced us with their kindness, encouragement, and/or acceptance. For me, that teacher was Ms. Carol Lacoss.
Ms. Lacoss’s English class showed up on my schedule my sophomore year of high school. I was nervous and a bit intimidated: she had the reputation of being a tough teacher. Indeed, above the entrance to her classroom was a sign that read Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.
The first day of class, I walked in, found a seat next to T.S., who, with his cobalt eyes and silky black hair, was one of the finest specimens to ever grace the halls of Glastonbury High. This was an encouraging start, but I still white-knuckled the corners of my desk, waiting for the terror to begin. Everyone knew this class was hard; there was a rumor that G.K. had dropped out of school simply because of this course. One girl in the back looked ready to cry.
In strolled Ms. Lacoss. She did not breathe fire, nor did she shoot lasers out of her eyes. She seemed . . . normal. And wearing a loose cotton shirt with trumpet sleeves and a broomstick skirt—the coolest outfit I’d ever seen on a high school English teacher.
“We’re going to start with Dante’s Inferno,” she said. “Come to class tomorrow prepared to take a quiz on the first three circles of Hell.”
She was tough, all right.
She was also fun. We acted out scenes from Greek tragedies and got to write an essay on what it would be like to visit one of Dante’s circles. She held group discussions on how women were portrayed in European classics, and encouraged us to voice our opinions and examine our beliefs. She challenged me. I loved her for it.
Then she made us study poetry. My love for Ms. Lacoss was about to experience its first rough patch.
I do not enjoy poetry. I often don’t get it. I certainly don’t write it. Or I didn’t, until Ms. Lacoss made one fifth of my grade dependent on churning out not one, but two poems. Two! This woman was tough, I tell you!
You’d better believe I struggled. I went for extra help and Ms. Lacoss patiently explained rhyme and meter to me for the thousandth time. She read poetry samples out loud and discouraged me from trying to dissect them too much, to try and find logic in abstract words. She reviewed my first several attempts at the assignment and gently but firmly pointed out the parts that were teenage angst-y drivel. She refused to accept my first poem, an ode to Nick Rhodes of Duran Duran (hair of red/eyes of greenish blue/I’m hungry like the wolf for you). She made me work. It was hard.
I eventually turned in two acceptable poems, one about a Grateful Dead concert, the other about a dead kid. She smiled when she read them, nodded, and gave me a “Yeah!” when I turned them in. Then she thanked me for my hard work and the impressive effort I’d made to learn a new writing form. Finally, Ms. Lacoss, in the nicest possible way, said that while I’d managed to type out two not-horrible poems, my strong suit really was creative writing. Next up: a short story about finding the beauty in the ugliest of things. I aced the assignment.
When I was trying to decide on my college major a few years later, Ms. Lacoss was a big influence (and not just on my wardrobe—I have clothes in my closet that I still refer to as “Ms. Lacoss outfits”). She’d inspired a delight in literature I’d once dismissed as archaic and bland, and the knowledge that while I still had lots to learn, I could write well. She’d encouraged me to both read and write every day, and let me know that it was perfectly fine to be passionate about both of these things, though others might see this as folly. It was important to do something you loved, and do it to the best of your ability, and never stop studying your craft. I graduated with a degree in English.
Today, I’m a writer, an editor, and an avid reader. I’d had all of these things in me from the start, sure. But it was Ms. Lacoss who watered these seeds of talent and encouraged me to blossom. Three years ago, when my first short story collection was published, the dedication was easy to write:
For Ms. Carol Lacoss, my sophomore high school English teacher.
You managed to make Greek tragedy fun, and a visit to Dante’s Inferno one hell of a ride.
Stacey Longo is the author of Ordinary Boy (nominated for a Pushcart Prize) and Secret Things: Twelve Tales to Terrify. Her YA horror novel My Sister the Zombie is due out in 2016. Her stories have appeared in numerous anthologies and magazines, including Shroud, Shock Totem, and the Litchfield Literary Review. She is a past Hiram Award winner, and was a featured author on the 2014 Connecticut Authors Trail. A former humor columnist for the Block Island Times, she maintains a weekly humor blog at www.staceylongo.com.