Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover: the Unlikely Teacher who Gave Me Wings as a Writer

On the first day of second grade, I felt sick to my stomach.

I stood with my two older sisters at the end of the long gravel driveway to our farm, waiting for the bus to pick us up and take us to school in nearby Gilbert, Iowa. It was the fall of 1977, my new teacher was Miss Marjorie Bly, and I wondered what I had done to deserve such a horrible fate.

The white-haired Miss Bly, just three years shy of retirement, had a reputation for being as strict and structured as a Marine Corps drill sergeant. She forced boys and girls to hold hands as they marched to the library in columns of silent precision. And if you had a runny nose, she would attack the offensive discharge with a crumpled Kleenex she kept wadded in the sleeve of her blouse.  

My sisters, having dodged the Miss-Bly bullet in previous years of classroom roulette, looked at me with a mixture of genuine pity and better-you-than-me relief in their eyes as we scrambled aboard the bus.

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In my seven-year-old’s imagination, Miss Bly was the living, breathing version of the screen character Miss Almira Gulch – the villain from the The Wizard of Oz who wanted to kill Dorothy’s dog Toto, and who later morphed into the Wicked Witch of the West – a psychopath hell-bent on scaring, burning, kidnapping and killing the members of a small, lovable band of friends with mental and physical disabilities. How would I ever survive second grade?

When we arrived at school, I stepped off the bus and into my classroom with all the courage I could muster. Miss Bly greeted me by name, and welcomed me into her class with a hard hug and a mandatory kiss. I stood shell-shocked with my equally dazed classmates, hair slightly mussed with matching lipstick smears on our cheeks.

As the months passed by, Miss Bly kept us in line like good little soldiers – that much is true – but she also celebrated our individual interests, nurtured our curiosity and made learning come alive.

In the spring, Miss Bly found a Monarch butterfly caterpillar on a milkweed plant in her garden. She brought it to school and kept it in a glass terrarium in the corner of our classroom so we could watch the caterpillar grow fat eating milkweed, pupate in its chrysalis, and then emerge as an adult butterfly. I was fascinated by the transformation, and devoured every book I could find on the insect. When the butterfly finally emerged from the shell of its chrysalis and dried its delicate wings, Miss Bly released it outside and we watched it fly away. It was magical.

Miss Bly was the first teacher to notice my love of storytelling, and she encouraged me to write and illustrate my own stories. She gave me construction paper to make the front and back covers, and a stapler to bind the pages, and she would “Ooo” and “Ahh” over my finished “books.” She also asked me to read each masterpiece in front of the entire class, showing me the same level of respect grownups reserve for celebrated artists and published authors.

Miss Bly labeled me a writer, and because she said it was so, I believed it. Her confidence in me made me believe in myself.

That is, until the summer after second grade when we moved 700 miles to Colorado. As the new kid in third grade that fall, I was too shy and insecure to share my stories with a different teacher and a classroom of strangers, and I didn’t feel comfortable asking for precious construction paper and staples, so I stopped creating books – even at home. With each passing year, I grew more and more distant from my old identity as the emerging writer who unfurled her wings under Miss Bly’s tender care.

By the time I was in my 20s, I stopped all attempts at creative writing. I told myself I wasn’t good at it, I was too busy, and writing just wasn’t for me. I distracted myself with the “real work” of cranking out hollow public relations fluff at a frenetic pace for several years. And then everything screeched to a halt when my grandma passed away.

I adored my dad’s mother – a former school teacher, farm wife, volunteer and prolific poet – who wrote letters to me, and who encouraged me to learn things through trial and error, and by getting lost and messy. I drove back to Iowa for her funeral, and after the church service I spied a familiar face in the crowd of people gathered to celebrate her life. It was Miss Bly, who was working her way over to me. She gave me her familiar hug and kiss, shared some poignant stories about my grandma, and then handed me a Manilla envelope.

“I was hoping you would be here,” she said, giving my arm a few quick pats. She pointed a finger at the envelope now in my hands. “I’ve enjoyed this for a long time and thought you might want it back.”

Curious, I reached inside and pulled out a child’s handwritten story – one that Miss Bly had held close for more than twenty years. The green construction paper cover was faded, but I recognized it instantly.

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“If I write a letter to you in Colorado, will you write back to me in Iowa?” Miss Bly asked, already digging around in her purse for pen and paper.

“I’d like that,” I said, jotting down my address, giving her a final hug goodbye.

“You always were a writer,” she said with a grin. I held the old story close to me, eager to take it home, my heart taking flight.

           In memory of Marjorie “Marge” Bly                June 30, 1918 – July 25, 2014   Miss Bly was a devoted teacher, avid sports fan, exceptional pen pal, amateur entomologist, and will forever be remembered by one grateful, former student as Glinda, the Good Witch of the North – patron saint to writers in all stages of metamorphosis.

           In memory of Marjorie “Marge” Bly
               June 30, 1918 – July 25, 2014

Miss Bly was a devoted teacher, avid sports fan, exceptional pen pal, amateur entomologist, and will forever be remembered by one grateful, former student as Glinda, the Good Witch of the North – patron saint to writers in all stages of metamorphosis.

“Jack and the butterfly” by Becky Jensen, age 7

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