Maybe public school kids watched movies like “Apocalypse Now!” all the time during class. Ho-hum, no big deal. But at my all-girls Catholic high school, when the lights clicked off and the VCR—this was 1985—clicked on in Mrs. Havlick’s humanities class, it felt like a dazzling transgression, and not simply because Martin Sheen was shirtless and took the Lord’s name in vain. It felt the same way when Mrs. Havlick assigned us to read A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN, or poetry by Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, and Adrienne Rich. We were teenagers—just teenagers in the eyes of so many adults. Yet Mrs. Havlick sent us “Diving Into the Wreck.” She flung us into a sea of new, some would say provocative ideas and trusted us to swim.
We also watched “My Dinner with Andre,” and though I hadn’t expected at age seventeen to fall madly in love with a long dinner conversation between two middle-aged men, I fell hard. At one point the main characters, Wally and Andre, argue about electric blankets. Wally says he’d never give them up because they provide comfort and “our life is tough enough as it is.” Andre counters, “But, Wally, don’t you see that comfort can be dangerous? I mean, you like to be comfortable, and I like to be comfortable, too, but comfort can lull you into a dangerous tranquility.” Yes! I thought. That’s exactly what humanities class was doing for me: unplugging my blanket. Waking me up.
Once Mrs. Havlick loaned me a book, I’ve long since forgotten which one, and tucked inside, like a secret message, was a scrap of paper covered in her spiky handwriting. It was a poem, or at least the first few stanzas of a poem. Judging from the cross-outs, she didn’t consider it finished, nor had she intended me to see it.
I remember being struck by the poem’s essential analogy, which used clothing to represent the constraints of everyday life. I could certainly relate. I’d worn a school uniform since the first grade. My skirt had to be the exact-right plaid. My socks must not draw undo attention to themselves. My cardigan had to be navy blue, not royal, or midnight, or robin’s egg. I was a walking metaphor!
On a deeper level, I also felt constrained by expectations—my parents’, my schools’, my religions.’ You name it. As far as appearances showed, I was exactly who I was supposed to be: a good girl who got good grades and went to mass on Sundays. Where was the daringness in that?
Often I fantasized about escaping, the way Stephen Dedalus escaped Ireland in A Portrait of the Artist, although, as Mrs. Havlick tactfully pointed out, I could not, in a college application essay, compare my caged intellect to James Joyce’s without sounding the teensiest bit pretentious.
Even back then I could tell that teaching high-school English and journalism wasn’t Mrs. Havlick’s dream job. She treated us like college students in part, I suspected, because she wished that’s what we were. I still remember the pride in her voice when she told us that she’d shown our essays on Lord Jim to a professor friend, and he’d deemed them as good as or better than anything his students ever produced. Would she rather have been striding the marble halls of academia instead of supervising the yearbook staff’s bake sale? Probably. But she stuck with us and taught us, by example and through the films and literature she shared, to value questions over answers. She taught us to push at the boundaries. She encouraged us—and I don’t consider this an overstatement— to be free.
I can honestly say I don’t think I’d be a poet today without her. It’s been decades since I tossed out my high-school poetry journals because they made me cringe. But at the time I took those poems very seriously, and Mrs. Havlick did, too. When I was wait-listed at the college of my choice, she was almost more upset than I was. She invited me over to her house on a Saturday afternoon to help me revise a batch of poems to send to the admissions committee. My brilliant verse would force them to realize their egregious mistake in not admitting me the first time around, right? Wrong. I never did get in. Still, I was grateful for her faith in me. I am grateful for her faith in me.
When you think about it, what better lesson could a poet learn than the ability to work within constraints? Robert Frost has that famous line about how writing free verse is like playing tennis without a net. But whether written in free verse or forms, poetry is all about using a small amount of space to say something big. Just as Mrs. Havlick used that stuffy box of a third-floor classroom to open our minds to the big, scary, complicated, dazzling world.
Christine Heppermann is the author of the forthcoming POISONED APPLES: Poems for You, My Pretty. She has been a columnist and reviewer for the Horn Book and has reviewed children’s and young adult books for the New York Times, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, and the San Antonio Express News, among others. She has an MA in Children’s Literature from Simmons College and an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Hamline University. She lives with her husband and two daughters in Highland, NY.