Thank-you Miss Cutting

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The first time I saw Miss Cutting, she was walking by my house on Allen Street in Johnson City, New York, circa 1965.  I was a 12-year-old boy that lived just up the street from her small 1st floor apartment.  She passed by my house every weekday, twice a day, as she walked to and from her work as an English teacher at the high school, located just at the end of our street.

Long before I came to know this woman as one of my favorite and most inspirational teachers, I knew her as one of the customers on my newspaper route.  Once a week I would knock on her door, early Thursday evenings and collect that week’s payment.

Miss Cutting kept a very neat apartment.  As she became more comfortable with me over time, she would invite me into the apartment while she collected her change purse.  What was noticeable most were all of the books.  I learned later that not only was she incredibly well read, she was equally well traveled, having been all over the world, either by herself or with a church group, something incredibly rare for a single woman to do, especially in the 60’s and 70’s and especially in some of the places she traveled, like the middle east.  I also learned later that she was an author in her own right, mainly children’s books based on biblical principles and I’m sure inspired from her travels to the Holy Lands.

She always had a wide smile on her face.  Other than the rare moments when she was frustrated in a classroom, she smiled brightly on everyone, all of the time.  She had a presence about herself that suggested a sense of quiet dignity and self-satisfaction that really provided for me a great example of how to compose oneself in a way that does not allow the pressures of the world to weigh you down.  She always seemed like a woman who had tremendous control over her life.

When I out-grew my paper-route, my dealings with Miss Cutting were limited to her daily walks to and from work and when I entered high school, our chance meetings in the hallways.  Lucky for me, English was not only my favorite subject; it was the subject that came easiest for me.  Because of this, I had satisfied all of my English requirements by the end of my junior year.  Accordingly, my senior year was pretty much freed up, as I had all of the requirements in order to graduate.  This provided me the luxury of picking and choosing some electives.  One of those electives was a course in creative writing taught by Miss Cutting.

Without question, this was the single greatest course I ever took in all of the schooling I had had to that point.  Miss Cutting encouraged in me something I had failed to unleash in myself.  With her encouragement and thoughtful critique, I discovered that I could write!

What was equally intriguing to me was the fact that so few others could do so, when it seemed so effortless to me.  Once she opened my eyes to the fact that I had the talent to express my thoughts into the written word, she demonstrated to me that through writing, your words become immortalized.  Everything you say is gone into the vapors of fleeting memories the moment it leaves your lips, but the written word outlives everyone.  Until it is written, it is as if it was never said.  Of course, the other edge of that sword is the fact that once written it can never be fully recanted.

Once I discovered that I had some marginal talent in writing, I was able to practice that developing skill, understanding that the only way to improve upon what I had was to push myself out into more and more writing.  The only way for me to learn how to write better is to write more and stretch myself to express greater and more complex thoughts.

Over the years, I lost touch with Miss Cutting.  Living life today and in the moment has a way of getting in the way of memories and we forget sometimes what is important.  One nostalgic gray fall day, circa 1990, I found myself re-walking my old paper-route on Allen Street.  As I approached Miss Cutting’s old apartment, I hesitatingly approached the front door and found the small piece of yellowed paper on the rusted mailbox:  CUTTING, typed neatly in the center.  I walked away, not really knowing what to say and just before I abandoned the idea, I walked back and knocked on her door.  As the door opened and the warmth of the apartment hit me, her smile, that same exact smile reminded me of so many things.  I re-introduced myself and as we chatted, I told her how much her teaching had meant to me.  She was so gracious and she told me that if she had anything to do with making me a writer, she was glad for it.  We kept in touch after that.

Once she gave up her apartment and went to live up on Deyo Hill road in a church based assisted living center, she gave up her car and her eyesight began to fail her.  I would take her to Comfort’s jewelry store every so often, so she could get the battery in her watch changed.  I took her to lunch once so she could meet my sister who was and is a world traveler and I knew Miss Cutting would be fascinated with my sister’s stories of her travels.  We had a wonderful time.

Today, I write mostly opinion pieces.  I generally wait until the subject has been hashed out in public and I have heard every voice debating it, pro and con.  Once the din of the debate has quieted, I look for a perspective or angle that has been overlooked, undeveloped or undervalued.  My goal is two-fold with opinion writing; first and most important is the quality of the writing from a technical standpoint, coupled with the “tightness” of the argument.  By that I mean the high standard of care in accuracy, fact-checking and logically based analysis that has already anticipated and diffused likely counter-arguments before they are advanced.

Secondly, I hope to change the skeptics mind.  I do not write to please the voices in agreement, I write to convince the doubters of their misunderstanding.

The greatest compliment I ever received was from a man who stopped me and told me that after reading a certain article I had written, it succeeded in changing his mind.  I cannot image higher praise.

Now that Miss Cutting has moved to her new living quarters in the Adirondacks in order to be closer to her family, my visits with her are limited to a few phone calls a year, just to check in and to make sure that she is OK.

Miss Cutting, I just want to you know how very grateful I am to you for the gift you gave to me in teaching me how to write.  It has been a blessing to me ever since and has underpinned almost everything that has happened to me in my professional life.  So many people have convinced themselves that they can’t write, so of course they don’t, which makes mediocre talent like myself seem so much better by comparison!  I keep practicing and I hope to gain incremental improvement over time, but I’ll never ever meet another person like you.  It is my profound pleasure to know you and I thank you again from the very bottom of my heart.

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