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Tetyana Denford pens a letter to her old teacher Mr Allen, who showed her and her classmates a different world
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I remember that day, not least because it was in the run up to Christmas, and it felt like a present come early. It was biting cold, and our hands were in our pockets, our eyes furtively glancing at one another beneath our woolly hats.
Our parents stood with us, wary, and equally hesitant about the cash they’d had to scrape together for this event.
None of us had been out of Lake George, the small, New York town that we’d been comfortably protected in for the last 17 years; we’d been happy with the idea that the world seemed very small.
Your class was always different: you possessed a brightness of spirit and a joy in adventure. You worked so hard to set the air on fire with words and passion, always encouraging us to question and bend the rules if they weren’t good enough.
One day, you suggested taking our entire class on a journey – a 10-hour long round-trip bus ride into the centre of what we all believed to be the furnace of creativity: New York City.
It was baffling – especially to me, an only child who had never travelled anywhere without my parents.
It was an anarchic concept: breaking out of school in the middle of the week to spend an entire day in a place we’d only read about.
We would be free: free of papers and chalkboards and heavy rucksacks and small windows and the clanging school bells that dominated our days.
When we arrived in NYC, there wasn’t the static energy that you’d expect from 20 teenagers. Instead, there was a hushed reverence that descended as the bus snaked through angry traffic and snow-glazed streets.
I remember seeing men in belted trench coats walking with their faces down, carrying briefcases. I remember seeing women with red cheeks, hair blown back by the icy wind, feet covered in heavy boots, carrying heels in plastic grocery bags.
I remember walking with my friends, four deep on the concrete, the bitter smell of burnt chestnuts roasting on steel carts. I remember all of us meeting in a group – confidently noisy, by now – walking into the theatre at Radio City Music Hall, loud questions bounding out of our bodies.
You, I remember, were proud, watching us as we giggled, the lights gently rising to focus on the stage and reveal an entirely different world.
You could have taken us anywhere, really. It could have been the national park, or camping, even; anything would have changed the path that we were treading up until that point.
That one experience gave us the answers to the inevitable question we would ask ourselves as adults – how do I want to be? Not ‘what do I want to be’, but how. ‘How’ is connected to the way we perceive the world, and our place in it, and this ultimately gave us the tools to shape our future.
That one day gave me permission to accept that my role in life wouldn’t always be dictated to me by office constructs and income brackets.
Because of you, I moved to New York to find a life outside of my village: I pounded the streets with fire in my belly, and when that life was all but exhausted, I started a new one in the UK.
You taught me to navigate life the way I wanted, not the way people wanted for me.
I took risks, I failed, but I got back up and said ‘yes’ a hell of a lot more than ‘no’. You were more than a teacher – you were a friend that reminded me to see past the obstacles and find the magic.
When I look at my children, I realise that they are evolving in a school system that I don’t wholly understand. But, like so many parents, I’ve entrusted their teachers to care for them at the granular level when faced with a world that’s overwhelmingly big.
If they are so fortunate, their classroom will hopefully take different shapes; where doors are opened and textbooks are closed, and the spark of exploration stays bright in their constantly changing universe, just like you helped it do in mine.
Mr Allen, your light has long gone, but you entrusted a small part of it to me long ago, and now it lives within my children – and one day, I hope, my children’s children. For that, I’m forever grateful.
Tetyana Denford is a freelance writer (Elle, Vogue, Selfish Mother), translator (Frontline), and author (tetyanawrites.wordpress.com). Follow her on Twitter at @TetyanaWrites.
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