Question of the day: WHO FORMED YOU?
Esquire magazine this month put together a great package all about mentoring — specifically about how many young boys are out there who need good, strong, responsible, adult mentors. As part of the feature, Esquire interviewed dozens of successful men, asking who had influenced and formed them…and the answers are wonderful. ((I especially loved Quincy Jones, talking about how he and Ray Charles had made this pact in the 1940s, when facing racism and discrimination: "Not one drop of my self-worth depends on your acceptance of me.")
The magazine got me thinking about my own formation, my own mentors. Nobody has influenced me more than my mother, but she was not alone in raising me. It most certainly takes a village. And today I want to express my gratitude to the best teacher I ever had — my 4th grade teacher, Ms. Sandie Carpenter.
Sandie was a gorgeous, dynamic, inventive young teacher when she got her hands on me in 1978. She truly believed there was nothing we could not learn, and she set no limits to our minds. She taught us Latin, astronomy, plant science (Yes, young Alma — botany!), sign language. (This was all in public school, by the way.) We put on a talent show. We started a newspaper. We memorized the Wordsworth poems and the Gettysburg Address (then raised money through a plant sale to take a trip to Gettysburg, where we recited the speech right where it had actually happened.) I can still recite the American presidents in order, because of Sandie, and I can still spell "succulent" because of Sandie. She taught us how to keep journals, and she read Hemingway to us. (HEMINGWAY! We were 9 years old!) She electrified our imaginations, every single day.
Sandie was also the first feminist I ever met. On the first day of school (this was 1978) she wrote her name on the board as MS. CARPENTER, and then explained to us that "Ms" was a new word, which had recently been invented in order to give women a title that did not reflect whether they were married or not. She further explained why this was important — because every woman should have an identity that she can carry with her for her entire life, regardless of her marital status.
I was like, "WHO IS THIS PERSON??!!!"
I was never quite the same after Ms. Carpenter. (And since that day, I have always been Ms. Gilbert. And I always will be.)
I am honored to say that Ms Carpenter has remained a true friend to me in my adult life. We've never fallen out of touch. I just saw her last week in Portland, OR. She took an overnight train all the way from Montana in order to come hear me speak. (Did I mention that she now lives on a mountain in Montana, and hikes or skis every day? That's her gentle retirement!)
She's still gorgeous, still dynamic, still pushing me to learn. (She's the one who will email me and say, "Have you seen BOYHOOD yet? Why haven't you seen it yet?")
It's difficult to thank the people who formed you and made you who you are. You never really know what kind of gift to offer them in return. In my case, I was finally able to come up with a nice way to honor Ms. Carpenter: I wrote THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS for her. Which is to say that I wrote it TO her. I wanted to delight her. I wanted to show her what her former student could do. I wanted to give her a big novel — the kind of novel I know she's always loved — about plant science, about Latin, about astronomy, about a brilliant female mind.
She liked it.
Though she corrected a few spelling errors.
So this is my thank you note/love letter to Sandie Carpenter….and tell me — who formed you?
And who are you forming?