When I started high school, I was completely out of my element.
I’d attended a Catholic elementary school and my 8th grade graduating class was only ten students. I knew all of them pretty well and they all knew me. We all wore the same uniforms day in and day out. I knew the routine, I knew all the teachers, I knew who I was and where I fit.
Then came Warwick Veterans Memorial High School.
My new school had approximately 1300 students. I’d never had to move from one class to another in multiple wings [side note: I still have nightmares from time to time about knowing my schedule, what period it is and where I’m supposed to be]. I knew a couple other people but most of the kids in my class had come from other middle schools and had known each other for years. Add to this that my family was living below the poverty level. My mother took me to shop for school clothes at the Salvation Army; it’s what we could afford. AND I was slowly realizing I was gay. Awkward doesn’t seem to adequately cover what I felt.
I’ll never fault St. Francis for the education I got. I was well prepared educationally for 9th grade and wasn’t really challenged until 10th or 11th grade in some subjects. The public school system knew nothing of my abilities so they understandably put me in the lowest level of each class. I wish there had been an assessment for me to be placed.
I don’t remember if I told my mother I wasn’t being challenged or if she found out. Regardless, she marched up to school to have them change my classes. They couldn’t put me into all honors classes but I got a few. Most important, I got into English honors.
Finally I could do some work that was engaging. I was pretty happy to get into that class….until I met the rest of the kids in it. I only knew one person. Sheila and I got into trouble for talking pretty soon after I joined, so I had my desk moved to the other side of the room where I didn’t know anyone.
The majority of the group had known each other for a long time since they all went to Gorton Jr High. Since I was awkward and an outsider, I didn’t feel like I fit in that class either. While there’s no particular incident I can point to, my memory is of other students looking down their noses at me. I made a few friends in that room and they were my buffer. That’s pretty much how things went until senior year.
When I got to English IV honors senior year, I was nervous. First, the teacher was Muriel Sweeney, who had a reputation as a no-nonsense, tough-as-nails educator. Second, I sat in the first row, right in front of her desk.
The first assignment she gave us on our first day of class was to write an essay about what we had read over the summer or within the last year. I had continued to be different, so when my best friend at the time introduced me to a host of things including poetry, music and thought from the 1960s (this was the 80s), they just seemed to fit. They were out of step with current trends but I could relate to protest and counterculture.
So I selected three works to write about: Howl by Allen Ginsberg, a play by Norman Mailer and the movie Platoon, written and directed by Oliver Stone. All of them had a significant emotional impact on me. I tried to capture what they meant to me, how I was changed by them. The essay was 2-3 pages and when I was done with it, I was pretty happy.
What Mrs Sweeney had neglected to tell us was that she required students to read essays in front of the class. Usually she would pick a couple of people to read and give the class a sense of what other people had done with the assignment.
She chose someone at random to read their essay. As they began to read, Mrs Sweeney figured out that they had chosen works from English III honors. She stopped the reader and asked other people what works they had chosen. When a few people told her they had chosen the same things, she then asked the question that made me shrivel.
“Who has chosen works OTHER then the ones from last year’s English class?”
I reluctantly raised my hand. There was only one other person who raised their hand and they had only chosen one different work.
“Mr. Rupert, come to the front of the class and read your essay.”
“Uh, Mrs. Sweeney, uh, I can’t, um…”
“It wasn’t a request, Mr. Rupert. Up!”
So I got up and dragged my feet to a place next to her desk. I started to read my essay but couldn’t take my eyes off of the lined paper in front of me. I had taken care to pepper the essay with emotional language and vivid, impactful sentences.
When I finished I stood there for a minute, embarrassed, ashamed, afraid of the reaction. An eon passed between the end of my reading and someone speaking.
“Thank you Mr. Rupert. Very well done.”
She may have said more but I don’t recall it now. There was a buzzing in my ears. Don’t remember getting back to my desk. I got an A- because of grammatical errors (she always pushed me to be better). I spent my senior year writing many more essays for Mrs. Sweeney. My love of English and my passion for writing began there.
The sweetest victory of all took place a week later, however. I was at lunch, just a typical day. There was another essay due. Lora Lee Pierce was sitting down the table from me. She had spent 3 years trying to ignore me.
“Would you read this over before I pass it in?”
Read about Mrs. Sweeney and Kristin Capaldi, pictured above. Kristin won the My Favorite Teacher Award in Rhode Island and was also inspired by Mrs. Sweeney.