And so this week’s moment of happiness despite the news.
A couple weeks ago, when I was being interviewed on Karen Osborne’s podcast called What Are You Reading? What Are You Writing?, I found myself telling the familiar story of my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Fatticci. Karen, after listening to me, said she had goosebumps. I had goosebumps on the day this memory actually happened, and I have them every time I remember that moment.
Thinking back over time, there were three teachers that really meant a lot to me. The first was Mrs. Fatticci in fifth grade. Then came Gary Salt, in the eighth grade. And Duane Stein, in my junior year of high school. All three of them had one thing in common – they encouraged my writing. And really, that encouraged should have a capital E.
I’ve made attempts to find each of them. When my first novel, The Home For Wayward Clocks, came out in 2011, I searched for Duane. I was living again in the town where I graduated from high school, and where I met him. I couldn’t find him on social media, but I found an address from a Google search. Taking a chance, I wrote him a letter and invited him to the book’s launch.
He came. In the chatter and clatter in the bookstore before the launch, I looked into the stacks, and there he was. He had two of my books under his arm. He glanced over at me, our eyes met, and I was suddenly that 16-year old girl again, struggling to maintain eye contact when he told me I had a gift, and I had a responsibility to use it.
He’s remained in my adult life. We have coffee together (at least, pre-COVID), and we work together on the Southeast Wisconsin Festival of Books.
The other two, Mrs. Fatticci and Mr. Salt, I’ve not had any luck. I’ve searched the internet, I’ve contacted the schools. No one seemed to know where they were.
And then, during that interview, I told the story of Mrs. Fatticci again.
In fifth grade, I was living in way northern Minnesota, in Esko, a teeny community between Duluth and Cloquet. I can sum up the environment and the era in one sentence: The girls were only allowed to wear pants to school on Tuesdays and Thursdays. And in this girls-in-dresses-and-fuzzy-tights community, a new teacher showed up. She had the exotic name of Fatticci. Her hair was swept up, she wore miniskirts and heels, and she had a smile that just wouldn’t quit. She taught English, and she announced that on Thursdays, we were going to have Creative Writing.
I chose a blue notebook just for that special day of the week. I wrote CREATIVE WRITING in block letters on it. On the first day, I walked with my friends from our homeroom to Mrs. Fatticci’s classroom.
She put a record on the record player. It was a song called “Oh, Shenendoah”. She said to just listen to the song and write our impressions. I swayed to the music as I filled my notebook with three solid pages of writing. When the song was done, she asked each of us to go one by one to the front of the room and read what we’d written. The other kids wrote things like, “There’s a boat. There’s a river. Somebody wants to see somebody.”
I got up and read my three pages. A full story. Characters, dialogue, setting, conflict, resolution.
When I was done, the classroom was silent, and boy, did that make me nervous. But from the back of the room, Mrs. Fatticci said in a hushed voice I can still hear today, “Oh my God, Kathie. You’re a writer.”
I was eleven years old. I read avidly, anything I could get my hands on. I took my childhood picture books and early chapter books that were illustrated, copied the pictures using carbon paper, and rewrote the stories the way I felt they should be written. I drew pictures and wrote stories about them. But I hadn’t yet made the connection that I was doing what those authors in my beloved books were doing.
Oh my God, Kathie. You’re a writer.
Know how it feels when you go shopping for something, a new jacket, a new sweater, a new dress, and as you pull a certain piece over your head and it settles on your shoulders, you know before looking in the mirror that you’ve found the one? The one that most represents you, who you are, that fits with your definition of self, even if you don’t quite know yet what that definition is?
That’s how that felt.
I sat down two nights later and wrote my first “book”. It was about a deer that runs in fear onto a pier and then jumps into a canoe, knocking it loose, and off the deer sails down a river. I drew the cover, included an “About The Author” on the back, with a hand-drawn self-portrait, and shyly showed it to Mrs. Fatticci. She pulled me from my homeroom to hand it back to me. And when she did, she said, “Go, Kathie, go!”
After doing that podcast a few weeks ago, I cast about for Mrs. Fatticci again. Because I didn’t know her first name, I never looked on Facebook. This time, I did, just searching under the last name. I found several Fatticcis, but there was one in particular, who lived in Hibbing, Minnesota. Hibbing is even further north, by about 75 miles, but…it was Minnesota. This person was a man, but I took a chance and sent him a message via Facebook Messenger. I explained who I was, who my teacher was, and asked if he happened to be related to her.
Less than 24 hours later, he answered me: “That’s my mom!”
I found her. She’s 75 years old, and still working in a daycare center with toddlers.
It took me a minute to acclimate our ages. She’s only 14 years older than I am. But when I was 11, that would make her 25, which is exactly right.
Less than an hour later, her son called me. “She remembers you!” he said.
I found her. I found her. I found her.
“I want to say thank you,” I said.
Mrs. Fatticci is going to call me. We’re going to talk. And I’m going to say thank you for handing me my future when I stood in front of a classroom and read a story.
I found her. I am so happy.
Now where the heck is Gary Salt?
And yes, that helps. Despite. Anyway.