Unbeknownst to me, I walked into 4th grade with a reputation.
I was not a star student. I was in and out of the principal’s office. I was loud, energetic, and lacked a filter. Every year, the same words came out during parent-teacher conferences: “bright, but disruptive.”
Enter Buffy Nicolas.
Elizabeth “Buffy” Nicolas was my teacher in 4th and 6th grade. She was the teacher you never forget, the teacher whose words and methods and passion still echo in her students’ memories. She was the teacher who attended her students’ graduations and weddings. She was, many of her students agree, more than a teacher.
I want to pay tribute to Buffy because she just recently passed away. There’s a lot to say about her, but I want to focus on stories she gave me that helped shape the trajectory of my life.
Buffy had a near superhuman ability to look into a student’s soul and know exactly what it needed to grow.
For me, she prescribed the following:
THE S.E. HINTON COLLECTION
In 1999, as Harry Potter was gaining popularity, Buffy put The Outsiders on my desk with a note that it might suit my interests. It’s a story with gangs, drugs, and murder – probably inappropriate for a 9-year-old. It might not fly today. But for the first time, as a ‘troublemaker,’ I saw myself in the characters of a book. For the first time, I was feeling empathy for a character that had a life different from my own. For the first time, I was drawn into the pages of a novel and could picture every detail.
As I finished The Outsiders, Buffy put Rumble Fish, Tex, and That Was Then, This is Now on my desk. One by one, I ate them up. Drug abuse appears as a theme throughout this loosely-tied series. From what I remember, it gets heaviest in That Was Then, This is Now, ruining the lives of more than one of the main characters.
Later on, Buffy gave me a battered copy of My Name Is Davy, I’m an Alcoholic: A Novel. The cover was ripped in half and many of the pages bore the marks of water damage. As you can imagine, this book deals with the consequences and aftermath of alcoholism.
“Take good care of this book.” She delicately handed it to me. “It’s my only copy and it’s been out of print for years.”
It only recently occurred to me the implications of the stories Buffy chose to share with me. I wonder whether she chose them in large part because of how they dealt with drugs. Buffy may have seen my personality – compulsive, curious, thrill-seeking – as tending toward substance abuse. I am inclined to believe she wanted me to make more thoughtful choices, and sympathizing with characters in these stories bootstrapped that ability. These books opened up a story loop that instilled an innate fear of drugs into my brain. I think her plan worked.
LEON'S STORY & THE MAN WHO LOVED CLOWNS
Empathy takes work. It’s an ability that must be introduced and practiced. In deep retrospect, the stories Buffy chose to read aloud to her class helped jump-start empathy within us. She chose stories that introduced character types we probably had not met in real life, but would almost certainly meet later on.
The Man Who Loved Clowns deals with mental illness, an issue difficult to confront as an adult, let alone as an adolescent. It follows the life of young woman tiptoeing through the social landmines of living with and being related to a man with Down’s Syndrome.
Leon’s Story is a series of vignettes in Jim Crow-era North Carolina. It centers around the life of a young black boy, the son of sharecroppers. It’s a stark firsthand account of violent and racist institutions – the reality that African Americans dealt with and still do. I remember Buffy struggling to read some of the passages, unsuccessfully holding back tears.
What did these stories – introduced by an authority figure – impart to us?
Empathy for the marginalized isn’t a given. They are, by definition, more difficult to empathize with. It’s painful to confront injustice that we are ill-equipped to combat. These two stories, carefully chosen as part of Buffy’s curriculum, made us experience and challenge those feelings.
For those two years, Buffy was our guide. She prepared us for meeting people unlike ourselves, for making more thoughtful life decisions, and for facing the world with compassion. She did it, in large part, with story; we’ll be remembering and unpacking those stories for the rest of our lives. And we’ll share those with our kids, our friends, and our students.
Wherever she is, she has our gratitude.