The Love List

est. 2006 // BY JESS GRAVES

Writing About Writing: In Memory of Mr. O.

Jess Graves

Every evening as I leave my office, I make the decision between leaving my laptop on my desk overnight or bringing it home with me. My job, though rewarding, is very demanding and emotionally taxing. Some nights, I'm so exhausted that I can't bear the sight of the thing. So I leave it in disdain, knowing it will be there to open its mouth in the morning and bathe my face in the same bleak glare. Some nights, I hate it.

But that is only some nights. Most nights, I tow it home. This is an act of optimism not because I might choose to get ahead on a few emails and feel prepared for the day ahead. It is because every night, I hope it might be the night I feel like writing again.

I have always felt that writing is more than an outlet for me. It is detox, it is church. It is sacred to my sanity. If I drain my poisons onto the page, they work themselves out of my system and I become clean again. But lately, I haven't had the capacity to purge.

I never learned another way to process my thoughts than to articulate them. I've kept a diary since first grade. What I didn't realize is that the natural inclination which so reliably compelled me to pick up a pen over the years could suddenly go away. That I could reach a point of such apathy and depletion that I wouldn't want to write. 

But I did reach that point, and I was unprepared for such a reality. Life began to overwhelm me. I was too tired to write anymore, so I shut down. When I stopped writing, I stopped processing and discovering. I felt uninspired and disconnected, but mostly I felt sad. 

The absence of this catharsis made me acutely aware of how much of my self-worth was tied up in my voice and my platform. I longed to have something, anything to say, just so I could feel like myself again.

Most nights, I bring my laptop home. I think to myself "Jess, this is the night you're going to be inspired again. Something is going to happen. Your voice is going to come back." 

But it didn't.

Last night, my Mom told me one of my favorite teachers passed away; my senior AP Lit teacher, Mr. Obrecht.

"Oh honey, it was awhile ago," she breathed. "It was cancer. I thought you knew." 

During the time Mr. Obrecht was my teacher, I was quietly suffering through my own private hell. My family had  violently imploded. My Dad was losing his mind and drinking himself numb, my Mom was wrapped up in a new marriage. Both sides of my family turned on one other during the divorce, all the dirty laundry came out, and my sister and I became prized pawns in an endless, heartbreaking chess game with no winners. I felt completely alone in the world.

High school is already an age when insecurity is a permanent state of being, so more acute than my depression was my embarrassment. My family life was a complete humiliation to me. I didn't feel I could invite anyone into my pain, so I suffered in private and retreated into books and journals. 

Save a few close friends, I think most people I graduated with would be surprised to hear this about me. If you were to look back through my yearbook or personal scrapbooks, I look like a happy, busy, squeaky-clean teen with lots of friends and a completely normal set of "problems" that mostly circulated around boys. I worked hard to keep school off the chess board, even if it meant most days I was playing a much larger game of pretend. At least there, I was in control of my own next move.

But Mr. Obrecht knew an act when he saw one. He read my frailty almost instantly, and I could feel his zoom lens on me from the first moment I spoke aloud in his second-floor classroom. He never confronted me about the particulars, but I knew he knew I was in pain. Somehow, that was comforting to me, to feel understood, despite not wanting to be seen.

Mr. Obrecht, or "Mr. O" as we called him, was tall and rather solemn by nature. Though quiet, he had a presence that commanded your attention. He was kind of grumpy, but in an endearing way, at least to me. He had many years of teaching behind him, which showed in his graying hair as well as his instincts. Because of this, he'd long ago passed the point of tolerance for bullshit; if you cut up, he nailed your ass to the wall, so not all the kids loved him like I did. They did however, respect him.

One day, right after the bell rung, he stood up from his desk at the front of the room and walked into the center of the seated class. Without a word, he pulled out a stapled set of loose-leaf notebook paper and put on his glasses. Aloud to the class, he began reading an uncomplicated allegorical essay about a girl waiting in line for a concert, looking up at the moon to pass the time, while everyone around her stared ahead, impatient for the queue to inch along.

It took me precisely one-half of one second to realize he was reading something I'd turned in. I froze, immediately nauseated by a cloudy swirl of shame and paranoia. Surely everyone would know I wrote this and immediately begin to ridicule me.

The bottom was about to fall out of my safe place, too. I felt sure of it.

"Oh my God, why is this taking so long?"

I sat expressionless, terrified I would give myself away. 

He finished, and in his wordless manner, scanned the room in expectation. I realized then that everyone was listening... and smiling. The class erupted into applause.

"Who do you think wrote this?" He asked. 

"I'm not going to give him or her away, but a student in this class wrote this." He said. "I think this person should be a writer, don't you agree?" 

During a time in my life when I felt depressed and unworthy of love, like everything I knew was a lie, Mr. Obrecht validated me. He reminded me that I had the tools and talent to begin the long climb out of my circumstances. Had he not done so, I might have never believed in my work enough to share it.

I always thought that one day I'd be back visiting my home town and that I'd run into Mr. O. Then I'd get to tell him that I did, in fact, become a real writer, that he'd made a difference in my life. I even pondered tearing something I'd written out of a magazine and mailing it with a note to thank him. 

I never did mail anything though, and I never did run into him again. It devastates me that I will never have the chance to thank him, to tell him the impact he had on me, how I have always remembered him so lovingly. Now, all I can do is the next best thing, which is to tell everyone else. I owe him that little bit of legacy.

Tonight, I was in the shower, winding down for bed, and I felt a familiar tug in my gut. It felt like a postcard from my old self, checking in on a far away friend. I jumped out, barely dry, pulled on an old cotton t-shirt and threw my laptop open in the pitch dark of my bedroom. Then I sat down and wrote this.

Every night, I hope it might be the night I feel like writing again. I guess tonight's the night. 

So that's something. And I feel a little better now. 

I think Mr. O would be happy to know that.