“Surprise me to the very brink of tears…” ~William Shakespeare (Timon of Athens, V, i)

As I sit here writing today I’m feeling a bit off – maybe a touch of stomach virus or something – but the blog must go on, as they say (helped along with a pot of ginger tea).  Plus, I have a really good story to tell you!  A story of true surprise, which is so rarely experienced as an adult isn’t it?

This story took root 27 years ago, in a barrack classroom at Manzano High School in Albuquerque NM.  I was a senior and for some unremembered reason, signed up to take a Shakespeare class as an elective in my final year.  Yes, all Shakespeare all the time, and no, I wasn’t the only student in the class…I think there were about 25 of us or so who took that brave plunge into the world of the Bard.  And I’m so glad I was part of that class, as it would open up new doors that I’m still walking through today.

Our teacher that year for that class was a woman named Clara Sanchez – Mrs. Sanchez to us.  And I’ll just apologize right now for not being able to adequately surmise or praise her teaching abilities…which were astounding, by the way.  It was obvious to me that she not only loved Shakespeare, but loved teaching it to us, and that made all the difference in the brain of a 17-year old struggling to understand what was basically a foreign language to us all.  Yes we did the typical high school classroom thing of taking turns reading different parts of different plays, trudging through the themes and trying to grasp why this character wanted revenge on that other character…  But the highlights for me were always when Mrs. Sanchez would then translate the scenes for us and reveal the hidden meanings behind the words – it was like a whole other world was there in those words if you just looked and worked hard enough to find and understand it.  A literary puzzle with meaningful rewards of learning and understanding.

I remember very well working on our year-end research project – I chose the topic of “The Dark Lady of the Sonnets.”  Which I absolutely cannot believe when I go back and read that research paper now – let’s just say the subject of The Dark Lady is more than a bit risqué and is one of Shakespeare’s most revealing pieces of work, both literally and figuratively.  But I remember at the time having tons of research and papers spread out all over my bedroom floor, pouring over every sonnet and reading everything I could get my hands on to help me understand why this character of his poetry was so intriguing.  Who was she, what was her purpose, why was Shakespeare writing about her?  (She was based on a real person, most literary scholars believe.)  It was my teacher who inspired me to go to these depths, to find the missing pieces of the puzzle.

At the end of that year, Mrs. Sanchez came to my high school graduation celebration at our house, and gave me a wonderful little book called ‘Shakespeare Soliloquies,’ with a lovely personal inscription inside.  I had a sonnet engraved on a thank-you plaque that I gave her as a token of my deep appreciation for her guidance and dedication.  I continued my Shakespeare education at my university that next year, getting special permission to take two senior-level Shakespeare courses as an incoming freshman.  A few years later, Mrs. Sanchez attended my first wedding as a guest.  A year or two after that, I paid her a surprise visit to her classroom when I was at the high school as part of my university recruiting job.  It’s ironic that this surprise visit was the last time we saw or talked to each other for the next 20 or so years.

My interest in Shakespeare came and went over the next few decades but it was always there in the background, like an old friend (you can read about my other blog posts on Shakespeare here if you’d like).  Life happened; I packed and unpacked several times in those next decades, moving into different apartments, houses, cities and countries.  But the little gray book of Shakespeare’s soliloquies always had a place on my bookshelf.  And when I decided on a whim during the summer of 2012 to fly to England for the World Shakespeare Festival that July, I took that little gray book with me.  It seemed only fitting to take with me a tangible reminder of the teacher who inspired me as I made my pilgrimage to Shakespeare’s birthplace.

I carried the book with me as I visited all of the sights in Stratford-upon-Avon.  Below you can see some pictures of me holding the book of Soliloquies at some of the town sights (and those of you who read this blog will know how extremely RARE it is for me to put pictures of myself in the blog, but this was one exception I’m glad to make) – one tourist who took my picture asked about the book, and I willingly told them the story of my inspirational high school Shakespeare teacher.  I’ve been back to Stratford since that time, but that initial visit will always stand out in my mind as a dream fulfilled, with one awestruck moment after another – seeing the room where Shakespeare was born, visiting his grave site, walking the cobblestones he used to walk.

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Me & my soliloquies in front of the famous Gower Shakespeare Memorial on a rainy day in Stratford-upon-Avon, July 2012.

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Me & my soliloquies with a sculpture representing The Tempest, found in the beautiful New Place Gardens, Stratford-upon-Avon, July 2012.

Ok, now for the rest of the story…after that 2012 visit to Stratford, I decided to try to find and re-establish communication with Mrs. Sanchez.  I wanted to tell her about my pilgrimage and show her the pictures with the book she gave me, and to thank her again for setting me on this journey that started so long ago but that was taking me to such wonderful places.  I had moved to Austin in 2009, and figured she was probably still in Albuquerque, but a thorough internet search didn’t turn up any location or contact info for her.

I called my old high school as well as the other high school after that where she taught (where I’d paid her the surprise classroom visit), but staff at both schools didn’t know how to find her.  I put a search query out on Twitter, and in a Facebook group called “Remember in Albuquerque When…”  No one came forward.  I messaged Mrs. Sanchez’s son Joseph through a high school reunion website (we had graduated together) but I knew it was a long shot that he would get the message and I never heard anything back (I looked for him too through other avenues but couldn’t find him either).  I began hesitantly checking obituary listings going back several years, but thankfully didn’t find anything through that route either.

In December 2012 I made a short trip back to Albuquerque for a few days to visit old haunts and eat the good food I miss so much, and I even went by Mrs. Sanchez’s old house; with my little gray book and printed England photos in hand, I knocked on the door, thinking it would be too good to be true if the door swung open with her standing there.  I knocked again and waited for a long time.  No one answered.  It was a cold snowy day, and as I got back into my car, a neighbor walked out of his house and flagged me down, offering to help – I told him who I was looking for, and he said yes he remembered them living there, but that they had moved away and no longer lived there.  As I drove away, I felt like that was my last shot at finding her.

Meanwhile, my horrible job got more horrible and as all of my energy and attention were sucked up by the negative environment in which I worked, I let my search for Mrs. Sanchez fall by the wayside.  I was sad but resigned to the fact that I probably would just not see or talk to her again.   I thought she probably moved away to another state. Every once in a while my parents would ask me if I’d every found Mrs. Sanchez and I’d say “still no.”

Fast forward another two years.  Life is happier, I’d quit that miserable job (the impetus for this blog by the way), the holidays were approaching.  I didn’t get the pots and pans I wanted for Christmas, but a Lego Shakespeare book set, a Star Trek hoody and new brakes for my car quite made up for that, thank you.  Then on Christmas morning, my mom gets all dramatic and says there is one more present I have to open – and then brings out THREE packages (my mom likes to go overboard at Christmas).  And then she says she has to videotape me opening them and tells me to not get annoyed – at which of course I immediately get annoyed.  (I’m one of those people who has always hated their voice and hearing mine on tape makes me cringe.)

I open the first one – and it’s a copy of the Albuquerque Journal newspaper from November 19th.  Huh?  It had a picture of boys sledding on the front with their Husky dog and a bunch of other random articles.  “Read it carefully, the clue is in the paper,” she says.  My annoyance level starts to go up – I’ve never been good at riddles and they make me feel stupid most of the time because I can never get them – but I scour and skim the articles for a clue.  I still have no idea what’s going on.  “I can’t believe you can’t get it from that,” she says and I finally get to move on to the second gift.

It’s two essays I wrote in my university Shakespeare class.  One of them was really bad; I got a B- and it was so marked up I could barely read it (the other received an A I’m proud to say, on the topic of Prince Hal’s SOLILOQUY no less [how’s that for foreshadowing]).  Hmmm.  I start to have an inkling of what’s going on, mostly because of Mom’s not-so-subtle Cheshire grin behind the rolling camera, but also from her card that she made me read out loud that talked about a “labor of love” and a surprise to equal the Paul McCartney tickets I gave her for Mother’s Day a year ago.  Mom was saying something as I start to open the third package but I don’t really remember what she was saying, as I was then starting to notice details – an Albuquerque return address on the box and an unfamiliar name of “C. Castillo.”  Castillo, I thought, what?  I had a sudden fear that it was someone related to Mrs. Sanchez that was sending me a memento in her memory, meaning the worst had happened.

I opened the card first that came with the third package.  “Read it out loud!” my mom directed.  I refused, asking for a little privacy.  I don’t think I could have read it out loud anyway; I was already on the verge of some pretty severe emotion (for me anyway) – because I had seen the name at the bottom of the before I saw anything else:

Clara.

It was her!  Little did I know that over the past year, someone else had also started looking for Mrs. Sanchez.  A very sneaky someone who goes by the name of Mom.  Yup, my mom had begun her own search when she learned that I couldn’t find Mrs. Sanchez.  My mom, who has a pretty hard time keeping a secret, kept a pretty monumental secret for many months as she did the impossible (ok, not impossible, just very difficult) and FOUND Mrs. Sanchez!  Except she’s been Clara Castillo for a while now, which is probably why I couldn’t ever find her.  A new name for a newfound old friend, it fits!

The card was written with love, and I read it several times before then opening the package that came with it.  Now let me say that I am not easily overwhelmed; I’m not overtly sentimental, I’m not a touchy-feely kind of person, and I don’t really show a lot of emotion.  I wish sometimes that I were more openly emotional, but I’ve just learned over many years that that is not who I am, and I’ve come to accept it for better or worse; maybe it stems from being so shy as a young girl, I’m not sure, but it’s just the way it is.  But what was in that box floored me emotionally and is one of the most meaningful, touching true gifts I’ve ever received (and yes I cried).

I opened the box and unwrapped Clara’s teaching copy of her Complete Works of Shakespeare.  A 34-year old treasure that she used during her entire teaching career in multiple schools and for affecting untold numbers of young lives.  It’s taped heavily to hold the well-worn bindings together, which I love, and page after page is filled with her handwritten teaching notes, research findings, and personal observations; for example, on the first page of Twelfth Night and the Duke’s famous “If music be the food of love” speech, she wrote “Violets = emblematic of: faithfulness” – a floriography note in a Shakespeare text, it’s a true melding of my worlds.

My new (old) favorite book

My new (old) favorite book

TwelfthNight

A wealth of info for Twelfth Night

And most meaningful:  on the title page of the book, a handwritten letter to me from my mentor, titled “Shakespeare: The Mirror Up to Nature” (from the mastery lines of Hamlet), recounting our meeting twenty-six years ago and bequeathing this marvel to me with love and affection. 

I know that I’ll use this as my main Shakespeare source for the rest of my life, and plan to spend the time it deserves to go through each play and sonnet again – only this time with the words of my teacher literally in my hands and mind, and perhaps daring to add my own notes here and there as I continue to learn.  It’s worth more to me than if I’d been given an actual First Folio, and I will keep it and guard it forever.  Thank you Clara.  You were the best teacher I ever had, and I value you.  I look forward to our in-person reunion this year!

I was apparently the only person in my family (and in central Texas) who had no idea what my mom was planning (she told a few people).  She didn’t give up on the search for Clara and when she finally did make contact (through an administrative assistant at third Albuquerque high school), she and Clara plotted this Christmas surprise for quite a while.  Thank you Mom.  I think you topped Sir Paul with this one.  What a special memory and friendship you’ve given back to me, and that’s beyond any value.

In closing, I’d like to encourage all of you reading this, if possible, to reach out to a former teacher.  If they inspired you, if they took extra time to help you, if they made you feel special and capable – let them know.  I could never be a teacher – I don’t have the patience or the guts or the germ-resistant immune system, quite frankly.  But those that do have those qualities can have a lifelong influence, as you’ve read here, and they deserve to know what an impact they had on your life.  Thank you to all the teachers out there that have made a difference!

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

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