I want to talk about Mrs. Romney for a minute

Mrs. Romney was one of my teachers; I went to a six-year program, grades 7-12, and she was my 7th grade English teacher and my Senior thesis advisor. She was endlessly kind, helpful, joyous, and brilliant, in that special way that teachers have of imparting their brilliance to others. Last week she passed away from complications of Alzheimers.

I can’t really enumerate the many ways Kathryn Romney changed and affected my life, but I will tell one story. I’ve told this story before, so you may have heard it, but it’s a defining moment for me, and one of the touchstones that made me who I am, so it’s worth repeating.

IMG_0985It begins, as so many formative moments do, with TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD.

Seventh grade is the year when reading classes stop being “fun” and start being “academic.” It’s the year when your teacher says “Now, this book is a great read, but don’t just breeze through it. Try to look deeper. Try to see what’s going on under the surface.” Many students balk at this, and I was definitely one of them; by seventh grade I was already an avid reader, a voracious reader, reading books well above my grade level but, like she said, only paying attention to the surface.

The day we started TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD she handed out a huge packet of stapled papers with the header “Critical Analysis,” and told us that as we read we needed to keep an eye out for themes, archetypes, metaphors, and more. We needed to look for hidden meanings, and hidden connections, and capital-s Significance, and we were ruthless in fighting back against it. “It’s just a story!” we shouted. “It’s telling us that racism is bad, and why does it need any deeper meaning than that? Why are you trying to suck the fun–nay, the very LIFE–out of one of the greatest novels of all time?” (We were an accelerated class, so I’m pretty sure we literally said “nay.”) (We were insufferable.) Mrs. Romney was patient–in hindsight, immeasurably patient–and let us read, and kept asking questions.

I remember the key moment very clearly. We were in class, in what was called West High’s “Old Gym”–which isn’t even there anymore–having just read the scene when Scout’s neighbor is trying to kill crabgrass. She watches her lawn like a hawk all Spring and Summer, looking for any sign of crabgrass, and when she finds it she races over with shovels and chemicals and everything else she needs to root it out and kill it. Okay, whatever. But Mrs. Romney wouldn’t let it go.

“Why is this scene in the book?”

“Because…the neighbor hates crabgrass?”

“Obviously, but why is that in the book? The author can choose what she does and doesn’t want in her book, and she chose this. Why?”

“Because…it’s a detail that brings the characters to life.”

“Look deeper. Harper Lee filled a whole page of her novel with a description of a lady killing crabgrass, so the least we can do is pay attention to it. Why is it there? Why is it important to the story? What does it tell you about the rest of the book?”

I don’t remember who finally said it, though I’m pretty sure it wasn’t me. Somebody raised his or her hand and said: “Is it…the gossip? Like, is she trying to show that crabgrass can ruin a lawn in the same way that gossip has been ruining the town all book long? And that the only way to stop it is to find the gossip early and put a stop to it before it can spread?”

I don’t want to you to mistake this next point, so let me be perfectly clear: this was a revelation. The roof of the school opened up, and rays of pure intelligence shone down from heaven, and angels with heavy books and thick-rimmed glasses flew down out of the sky and sang “Critical Analysis!” in tones so sweet and perfect that literature itself seemed to weep in answer. Suddenly I GOT IT. Suddenly it all made sense–all the questions, all the themes and archetypes and metaphors and more. It seems so simple in hindsight–“kill the crabgrass before it spreads” is, as metaphors go, a pretty blunt instrument–but it’s what I needed, and it was when I needed it, and there’s a very good reason that we read TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD in seventh grade because it is unerringly effective at teaching these basic lessons. I am not exaggerating when I say that this changed my life in the best way possible. Reading was already my favorite thing in the world, and now, seemingly out of nowhere, Mrs. Romney had taught me how to do it and experience it and love it on a whole new level. She wasn’t sucking out the life and the joy of books, she was showing us how to find more.

I know that some people, even after their seventh grade English classes, continue to object to this kind of reading. “If the curtains are blue that just means the curtains are blue” is an entire Facebook meme, and if that’s how you want to read that’s fine. That’s awesome, in fact: as long as you’re reading, I don’t care how you do it. For me, the ability to find depth beneath the surface brings a life and vitality to stories and literature that makes everything a hundred times–even a thousand times–more vibrant. It is everything I love about reading. It is why I am an author today.

A few years ago, on a baseless whim, I went to a certain restaurant in Salt Lake City where I have never been before or since. On that same day, and at that same hour, Mrs. Romney and her husband happened to make the same seemingly aimless decision, and thus fate gave me the chance to see her again, and to talk with her about our lives, and to tell her how grateful I was for the magic she had brought into my mine. I got to tell her that, thank in part to her inspiration, I was now an author; the second PARTIALS book, FRAGMENTS, was about to launch just a few days later, and I invited her to the signing, and she came and got some books. She had Alzheimers by that time, so I can’t be sure how much she actually remembered about who I was or how she knew me, but the joy practically shone from her face. In some ways it didn’t matter who I was: another human had written another book, and isn’t that reason enough to be happy? She took her books, and we hugged, and I’m grateful to this day because not everybody gets the chance to thank their heroes like that. I got to thank mine, and now I’ll do it again:

Thank you, Mrs. Romney. You changed my life.

Kathryn Romney’s viewing is tonight (June 23, 2017) at 6pm, at Stark’s Funeral parlor in Salt Lake City. Her funeral is tomorrow morning at 11 at the Holladay North Stake Center, 4395 S Albright Drive. I will do my best to go to both. If you or someone you love had Mrs. Romney as a teacher, I encourage you to do the same.

The family has requested that, in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Alzheimer’s Association.

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