the power of a good story
Updated: Jun 10, 2019
HER NAME WAS BELLA BORTZ and she was terrifying. She wore the same brown leather jacket to school every day. The only reason I remember this is that she used it to furiously clean the chalkboard, as if that was only reason she owned a jacket (or a right elbow).
She was my fifth grade teacher, and warm and fuzzy she was not. She carried a kind of brittleness in her eyes that I recognised even then, as a symptom of something else. A wounded soul or an untamed spirit – I wasn’t sure which. Perhaps both. I lived in perpetual fear of scraping my metal chair against the floor, because that was cause for immediate ejection from her classroom.
She handed us reams of vocabulary every week, instructing us simply to use the words creatively. She explained that she was preparing us for university. We were only ten years old, but that was no excuse. And I loved those words. I still remember some of them. Cacophony. Tempestuous. Chimera. Reverie. They allowed me to create new worlds, where dreams were simply alternative realities. And it was in Miss Bortz’s class that I learned the power of a good story. That by manipulating verbs, nouns, punctuation, you could transform a completely ordinary life into something spectacular.
Miss Bortz challenged me. She pulled apart my writing. Honestly. Brutally. And with every red comment screaming from the page I understood, somewhere deep inside my decade-old brain, that my writing was getting better. And then one day, there was only one bloody scrawl. She told me that if I continued to work very, very hard, I could perhaps some day be a good writer.
My love of words grew. As did my understanding that a story well-told can effect change more profoundly than a universe of laws. I briefly taught English literature at university, and then marriage, motherhood and moving brought new, exciting things into my life. And I forgot that I was meant to be a writer. Until the day the unwritten words started choking me.
It was an interesting time and for a while there I thought I was going crazy. Some would argue that I did. And then one night, out of the blue, an old friend asked casually across cyberspace what had happened to my writing dreams. It was the metaphorical slap to the forehead that dislodged the words. And they came tumbling out.
Three months later I had my first book. I called it fiction because it was easier to tell the truth that way. Of course I dedicated the book to Miss Bortz. And then I tried to find her. I searched and searched. In the process, almost my entire Grade 5 class was reunited. But still no Miss Bortz. There had been some sightings over the years. Some rumours. But she remains unfound. I have no idea whether she’s even still alive. And what most saddens me is that I’ll never know her story.
First published in November, 2013 in The Beacon newspaper.