His office was decorated in posters and illustrations of Wil E. Coyote and Edgar Allen Poe. He loved the Tiny Toons. I knew on the first day of his class that I was not in a typical class, but I had no idea how much I would grow in the two years that I had him as my teacher.
He taught English, but he wasn’t stiff and serious like the other teachers. It wasn’t that he tried to make it fun or easy for us as students, but it seemed as if he was trying to convey the material in a way that was fun for him. His class was like a performance.
His personality was silly at times, but he could be serious if you mistook his kindness for weakness. Ultimately, he earned the respect of all of the students. Many would say he was their favorite teacher. He changed my life. His name was Mr. Levin.
Mr. Levin made us write in journals on a weekly basis to build our writing skills. However, he identified my writing skills through a writing contest he held at the beginning of class. He asked us to write a story about baseball. The premise was simple and he offered no direction on what to write or how to write it. We were just to write it and turn it in by the deadline.
Unbeknownst to anyone, I had been writing stories ever since I was seven years old, but I never showed them to anyone. They were in notebooks and on loose-leaf papers all over my bedroom. I told no one, and no one asked.
He dedicated a class to announcing the winners of the Writing Contest, and he read each story aloud.
He read the stories that won third and second prize first. Then, he announced the winner, and he said my name. I was shocked. I thought he must have made a mistake as he looked at me.
He opened up my stapled papers and started reading. I had never heard my words read aloud. It felt foreign to hear them outside of my mind and being spoken by another voice. I felt vulnerable. He read it with inflection and tone, until I was enthralled and caught up in my own story.
My story was about a baseball player at the World Series. He steps up to bat with bases loaded. I had written imagery of the sweat dripping down his brow, and how he heard the silence of the crowd while staring at the pitcher… how he could hear the first ball whizzing past his head and feel the wind of it… how he could hear the heartbeat in his ears and the pressure of uncertainty.
Then the bat connects on the third pitch, and the ball goes flying over the wall. I wrote about the player’s realization that he has won the World Series as he rounds the bases and is embraced by his teammates.
I accepted my prize while trying to come to terms with the idea that I deserved it. It felt like an out-of-body experience. I was a writer.
After I won that contest, my teacher took an increased interest in everything I wrote. He poured over my journal entries and helped me correct grammatical errors. He offered to speak to me after class to discuss whatever was going on with me. But he didn’t say anything else about writing. I think he sensed my apprehension.
Another turning point came when he told the class that we would read The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton.
Up until that point in my schooling, I read mostly male authors, and characters from a male perspective. I remember Mr. Levin telling us that not only was S. E. Hinton a girl, but a fifteen or sixteen-year-old girl. My whole world opened up that day. I had no concept that teenage girls could be published authors.
After we completed the book, he showed us the movie. It was as if someone lifted a limit off what I believed was capable for my life.
I began to take my writing more seriously.
I remember sitting in Mr. Levin’s class one day while we were having a free period. All the other students were doing their own thing. He came over to talk to me, and I told him how I was shocked that someone published a teenage girl. He encouraged me to keep writing and offered to read my work if I wanted feedback.
I gathered my courage, along with the story I was working on. I submitted it to Mr. Levin for review. He took a few days to get back to me, which made me nervous that I had made a huge mistake. I thought he was going to come back and tell me I had no talent and that my story was garbage.
He pulled me aside, and told me he wanted to talk to me after class. After everyone had left, he handed me back my story. It was covered in red marks for grammatical errors and punctuation. He said he loved it. He wanted me to keep writing, and he wanted me to read it to the class.
I was not prepared for his level of excitement or interest. I had just wanted him to like it, but as a result, I allowed him to push me out of my comfort zone. I trusted that he knew what I didn’t yet know about myself. I was nervous to share my work with my peers. I thought they would think I was weird, or that it was stupid. But that following Friday, Mr. Levin set aside time for me to sit in front of the class and read the story.
In this day and age, I don’t think I could have gotten away with the type of story I read. However, Mr. Levin’s favorite author was Edgar Allen Poe, who writes very dark lore. We had read many of his tales in our class. The work of Stephen King had heavily influenced me, and my writing reflected that. Now, I worried that people would probably flip out and have me evaluated.
This story was about a young girl who wakes up and finds herself trapped in a closet full of bones. The plot follows her desperate attempt to discover where she is, and to escape her captor.
As I read the story, you could hear a pin drop in the room. No one said a word. As I finished the last word on the page, I expected to hear laughter. But instead, all I heard was applause. Then, it turned into a question and answer session, with my classmates wanting to understand more about the story. Mr. Levin eventually had to shut down the session after the bell rang and nobody moved.
I had a huge smile on my face as my classmates spilled out of class.
Mr. Levin continued to encourage me to write. He proofread my work, and he set aside time in his class to read my stories. Before I graduated, he asked me to write something, and he said he would teach it as curriculum. He took such pride in discovering my talent and he built so much confidence in me as a writer.
At graduation, he presented me with two writing awards. I later found out that he had nominated me and pushed for me to get the awards. It is a gift to have someone believe in you that much.
Mr. Victor Levin passed away in 2015. But everything I write and publish, I owe to him believing in me, and encouraging me to believe in myself.
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