I punched in the numbers to sign up for her class on a payphone. My social security number, the class code. All I had to do was show up with a notebook and two books. I was fresh out of high school and missing my old friends. I’d left my home town, a town of 3500 to go to school in Tallahassee. I was just barely eighteen years old, in a town of 35,000.
She made me feel connected in a place of disconnect. Grounded in a land of unground. She taught Freshman Comp, 1101.
That freshman year of college I tasted Pineapple Saint Ides Malt Liquor for the first time, sweet and salty, and, whew—I had my first friends with their own apartment, whom we met outside of the gas station: Josh, Jared, Ignacio. They had the most beautiful posters you’ve ever seen, music I’d never heard. There was a boy I liked.
My brother rode into town on his way to Seattle to become a musician.
I learned about LSD. And laughed.
I ran then, quite literally. Around the spongy FSU track four times, then ten, then sixteen, I watched the sun go down with the smell of the Tennessee Street Dunkin’ Donuts syrupy batter wafting around in my brain. One more lap, I thought. Give it all you’ve got.
Romaana, my first friend, sat on the steps of the all-girls dorm and complained that nobody would go out with her on her birthday. I was devouring a Zebra cake from the Citgo. I said, I’ll go.
Her roommate, Erin, wore a spider necklace, had a bottle of Wild Turkey, and was sleeping an awful lot, in the kitchen, where they’d been placed because the dorms were overloaded.
I called her Chase, because she reminded me of Angela Chase, from My So Called Life: beautiful, kind, timid. We showed up with as much Diet Dr. Pepper as we could carry, and begged her to go out with us. She finally did, and a boy named Juan flirted with her aimlessly, all night. We took pictures.
Older boys bought us peach colored Sex on the Beaches. We danced. We stayed up late, bought Moon Pies from the Citgo, and chips from the dorm room vending machines. Pizza from the only delivery service open until 4 a.m.
But Honor Johnson.
In her class, we wrote.
She gave a lesson on Finding Your Voice.
I don’t remember specifically finding my voice, or anything about what the lesson entailed. I remember that overly confident boy from Miami with the creamy skin and blue eyes who crossed the color line in the student union, hanging out with the black students instead of the white, which was visibly divided, even in 1997, something I would later aspire to do.
My friend Chase would come to sit outside of my dorm room at the concrete picnic table, waiting to walk me to Bio.
I remember Honor Johnson asking us to write about our passions. What was I passionate about? In those days, I was passionate about a boy. I was young and in love with pretty much everyone but there was one boy with purple shorts and a sweet, confident smile who I couldn’t believe would even call me, but sometimes he did. So I wrote about that. Naïve. Young love.
Romaana and Chase made fun of me when they found me writing. Sitting on the wall in the Student Union. There was this cozy place between a pillar and the wall where I could sit on the concrete and let the air warm my shoulders and watch the other students walk by to the post office; to the TCBY, for $1 frozen yogurt, to the snack shop where they made the most amazing spinach wraps with beans and rice and chicken and anything else you wanted, which wasn’t something you had back then in the OH.
The spinach wraps would get a little gummy after they heated them, like, pure earthly, healthy goodness in your mouth. Gooey. Delicious.
I sat there and wrote. Honor Johnson was telling me to find my voice. In my new red notebook from the Bill’s Bookstore, I put on my headphones of my brother’s demo tape, because it was the one thing that could console me and make me feel like home and I wrote and wrote and wrote.
You working on that English story again? Romaana and Chase would say. Chase jumped up on the wall with me to watch the people walk around.
We had nicknames for everybody. The Orange Guy. Surfer Rob. Sunglass Man. Romaana met our other friends from the third floor, Nikki and Nicole, at the tables; cold, sweet TCBY between classes. It was Heaven, writing it all out.
I started writing letters. At one point, I wrote so many letters that I thought I had written it all down, finally spoken all I needed to speak. I put the stamps on them, and went to English class.
Honor Johnson wrote about how she’d like for a music producer to walk by while she was singing in the shower so she could get some kind of music deal. Yes, me too. Romaana said later, you always used to sing.
Honor Johnson published one of the essays I wrote that year, and she nominated it for an award. It came in runner-up. At the time I was mortified, that the boy might actually read it, and I’d be even more humiliated.
The boy ended up having a girlfriend back home. That he hadn’t told me about. Which didn’t make the story.
But now, when I read the essay, it’s not so much about unrequited love. It’s about leaving your old friends and moving to a new place. About having to buy your own toothbrush for the first time. Not something to be so afraid of. Not as embarrassing and revealing as when I wrote it.
Why are we so afraid of writing our truths?
I taught creative writing last year at a very prestigious art-focused high school. I told them not to hide their truths, stories, or successes. I told them to celebrate them. To trust their own voices.
When I was getting my grad school application together, I found the Freshman English paper from FSU where I was struggling and confused, and not sure what I wanted to do with my life.
My parents were encouraging me to be a banker or a teacher. I thought my writing was shit. Honor Johnson had written thoughtfully on my paper, Whitney, you are a writer.
She probably didn’t know then, that she had taught me to find my voice.
When I finally finished my bachelor’s degree at Wright State in Ohio. I looked for Honor Johnson, and couldn’t find her. When I finished my Master’s in Creative Writing, at Antioch University, I couldn’t find her, even on social media.
I figured she had gotten married, changed her name, and that I might never find her. And then I published my first poetry book, and happened to look her up again, on Facebook. And guess what. I found her.
This is my essay, Ms. Johnson, to say thanks. I’ve been a lot of places and I’ve done a lot of things, but you were right, and I’m so grateful for it. Despite myself, and all the other things I’ve tried to do, I’m a writer. Who knew I’d have so many more beautiful and painful and colorful adventures? Or that I’d want so much to write them.
Thank you for teaching me find my voice.
For the rest of you out there, struggling to write, teaching adjunct courses that don’t pay enough, remember that each one of your students will remember the encouragement you give them, even if you don’t know it. Even if they’re distracted and disorderly and disorganized…you are making a difference in a young person’s life.
Honor Johnson received my first book today, which I dedicated to her. And she put it on her mantel. Her mantel, the place where people honor things.
As far as I know, she only taught that one semester at FSU. I’m eternally grateful to the universe that she was there for me.
Everybody needs somebody to encourage them to find their voice.
I hope that when you’re not writing, fellow writers, that that’s still what you’re doing.
I'll be at Carmel's in Dayton, Ohio, on Sunday, October 15th, 2017 from 3 to 5 p.m. signing copies of my debut poetry collection.
Let me know if you're a teacher, mention this post, and I'll buy you a margarita. Each book comes with a complimentary Corona or Soda, and ten percent of book sales will go to Womanline. Refreshments will be served. I'd love to see you there, and if you're a writer, I'd love to hear about what you're working on.