THE WOMAN WHO CHANGED MY LIFE
by Catherine Spinley
They say it takes a village to raise a child and, although I don’t have kids, I wholeheartedly agree. I had a pretty tremendous village, including a mom and dad who, to this day, are there to celebrate my joys and soften my sorrows. However, I wouldn’t be the person I am today without a very special soul, my second grade teacher, Mrs. Susan Kupiec.
My 7 year-old self was not much different than the person I am today: painfully self-conscious, unsure of myself, unfocused, disorganized and petrified of failure. Even back then I worried and grappled with anxiety. I struggled and tried everyday to prove I was smart and capable, a habit I’d picked up the year prior when my first-grade teacher terrorized me daily about my handwriting, my reading, my forgetfulness, not knowing how to spell “CATHERINE,” because my parents taught me to spell the only name they ever called me, “CATHY.”
I entered Mrs. Kupiec’s classroom in desperate need of love and validation. In the early days of second grade I developed a minor case of hypochondria: a callus formed from holding my pencil too tight was a potential “growth,” a scratchy sore-throat from yelling like a maniac at recess needed attention from the school nurse ASAP lest it be an early indicator of strep, a sweat broken from a unseasonably warm day and an air conditioner-free classroom was surely a flu-induced fever. I even spit out a Tootsie Roll given to us in our Halloween candy bag absolutely positive it was poisoned, something I knew to be watchful of after overhearing a story on the news the night before. I was a Grade A pain-in-the-ass yet every time I approached Mrs. Kupiec’s desk with a new ailment or emergency, she patiently listened to my tale-of-woe and talked me down from whatever ledge I was perched on that particular day.
She was everything to me and, for the first time in a very long time, I felt safe.
As the year went by, I became whole again and school was no longer something to dread. I loved that Mrs. Kupiec handed out pretzel rods snacks throughout the day. I loved that she let us ad lib our own lines and gestures when performing in the school play. I loved that she built us a giant, cardboard medieval castle to be used as a cozy reading nook. I devoured the Judy Blume canon in that very castle. Her gentle and warm way of teaching and nurturing bolstered my confidence and I felt able to be myself. When working on the daily math, language and science worksheets (blurry, purply-black photocopies back in those days), I always ensured every illustration featuring a person or animal was colored in with a full face of makeup. This extra step never escaped Mrs. Kupiec who would not only grade my papers, but always added a thoughtful comment about the accompanying artistry. I imagine her murmuring to herself, “I see you, girl.”
And, while I remember the complete feeling of love Mrs. Kupiec filled her classroom with, it is what she taught me about vulnerability and acceptance that has stayed with me for over thirty years. School was never easy and I was never able to communicate why or figure out how to change this. These personal cracks began to form as early as elementary school; I remember not being able to focus very well and gradually falling behind on our daily class work. Recognizing I worked at a slower pace, Mrs. Kupiec always allowed me more time to finish assignments, letting me work quietly at my desk while my classmates moved on to other tasks. As the weeks went by, I continued to fall farther behind and became ashamed and fearful Mrs. Kupiec would figure me out for the idiot I assumed I was. I was terrified one of the most important people in my life would no longer like me. To hide this from her, I shoved unfinished work into my desk hoping it would magically disappear overnight. When that no longer worked and crumpled up papers overflowed from my desk forming an academic popcorn of sorts, I could no longer hide my shortcomings. Yet, instead of yelling, Mrs. Kupiec calmly informed me we’d talk about it during Free Time the next day.
I sat on pins and needles wondering what sort of ass-ripping I’d get, imagining I was persona non grata at recess for the remainder of the year, that I could certainly forget about playing with the baby chicks we’d incubated and recently hatched. Perhaps worse, she’d call my parents and that would be the end of my childhood as I knew it. R.I.P. Instead, Mrs Kupiec brought me to the corner windowsill where perched was a box with a tall, cardboard rendering of a Heinz ketchup bottle attached. It was named: Cathy’s Catch-Up Box.
Piled in the box was a small assortment of the worksheets I’d yet to finish, “I threw away the ones I know you already understand,” Mrs. Kupiec said. Together we devised a schedule to empty Cathy’s Catch-Up Box: one extra worksheet a day and some extra support from Mrs. Kupiec which was probably to ensure I pared down the makeup face charts that took some much-needed time away from my actual school work. It was the structure I needed to finally tackle the stack of papers that had accumulated over the past months causing me a tremendous amount of fear and embarrassment.
Before I knew it the box was empty, just in time to begin our year-end project on dinosaurs. The assignment was a final paper on any topic pertaining to dinosaurs. I chose to focus on the Stegosaurus because...spikes! We were in charge of monitoring our own time, with the deadline being one week before the last day of class. I spent weeks drawing stegosauruses: entire Stegosaurus families, Stegosauruses with rainbow back plates, sketches of plants eaten by the herbivore Stegosaurus and, of course, a Stegosaurus complete with a full-face of makeup. I knew my project wasn’t as fact-laden as others, but the effort and passion was in the illustrations, the color selections and the detailed captions like, “Stegosaurus wearing blue eyeshadow,” and “Stegosaurus snacks on green plants.”
When the last day of school arrived and it came time to hand out awards, Mrs. Kupiec gave me, Catch-Up Cathy, the award for “Best Dinosaur Report,” and presented me with an enormous chocolate dinosaur. She winked at me as I proudly galloped to the front of the classroom to claim my prize and, even then, I knew the award was about so much more than a report filled with psychedelic sketches of kewpie doll dinosaurs. It was Mrs. Kupiec telling me I was good enough, that I had within me the power to navigate and solve my own problems, and a message telling me when times get tough, there is always someone there to help you and accept you for the person you are.
Mrs. Kupiec passed away on September 23, 2011 at the age 61. To say I was heartbroken would be an understatement. I was overwhelmed with grief and with regret having never thanked her or told her about the place she will forever inhabit in my heart. I owe her that and so much more. She is quoted as having said, “Children care when you care about them,” and noted she felt a maternal connection towards each of her students. I felt it every single day I sat in her classroom and will never forget how she brought my soul back to life.
March is Women’s History Month. Throughout this time we will be sharing the women who’ve changed our lives. We’d be honored if you’d share your stories in the comments below or in our Instagram pictures. We’ll Pick one story tomorrow (3/9) at random & send a little gift to the inspiring woman in your life to celebrate her.
Catherine Spinley is a sometimes-writer and photographer based in New York. When not stalking other people’s dogs or yelling at people who refuse to walk up the left side of the escalator, she works in the beauty industry and practices yoga. You can read more from her at Worepaint.com.