Wacko, crazy, intense, weird…
Many didn’t understand her, or see how she used her space, her energy, her passion, for the work. They assumed her as a crazy old woman who they had to do homework for, when in fact what she was preparing us for would last a lifetime. I recognized something in her that helped me see me. For that, I am ever grateful.
She has a step, a rhythm, that thumps like a beat on a chest that graces the air. She is connection and grounding. She is wise. She is strong. She is knowledge and thought and the instigator of exploration. She is the muse of persistence.
Her classroom was an extension of an overpopulated institution, one of several portables erected in our high school parking lot. A ramp led to the squeaky door, edged with small flecks of rust, starting to show the aging material. A single window let in the morning light of the sunrise. The cascade of sun as it peaked over the Wasatch range clamored to touch the desks as they rested, awaiting the young influential minds of 11th and 12th graders. She, in cobra pose, with her long stretched neck, in full yoga session, preparing for her day.
When you were a student of one Ms. Marilyn A. Miller’s, you weren’t going to only study English. You were never certain what greeted you each day. She kept life in a constant state of motion. There were no pop quizzes about spelling or definition. There were poptivities about how language and meaning refracted the life you wanted.
There were two things that were consistent in her classroom and course curriculum. Once a week you could take your lunch to her classroom, and finish the new episode of MTV’s Daria with her, which overlapped the start of class by about 7 minutes. Those who chose to watch, then began class with discussion on the aforementioned material and anecdote. The second would be the “real” classroom opening of freeform thought journaling.
The fresh smell of chalk, powdery in the air, lingered during journaling. The dark green chalkboard–etched with curly script stained from the hand of deep pressure–announced an inquisitive provocation. No editing, no erasing, no judging, we began the day writing what popped into our minds from reading the query.
Most times it was silent, you knew once she put down her chalk to just begin. Other times, there would be nothing on the board, but she’d act an experience she may have had over the weekend, or in a past life, or in a play she was studying.
Impromptu iteration of moments in which she wholeheartedly had a profound and everlasting connection, took her back to the space of interaction. Or maybe it was in how she presented it, her telling of the story that engulfed you. She, in full-body motion, creating the space, the ambiance, and the lesson in the story. It was as if you could feel her angst, her pain, or even her joy.
The acting of one profound moment in her life could have won her a Tony, if she’d been cast in a one-woman show. A one act play in which an unlikely character whose mission in life is to protect mother nature, finds herself in the middle of a forest having to hunt for the first time to save her own life and that of her family. Ms. Miller recounted the first time she ended the life a deer, not for the sport of hunting, but for the necessity of feeding her family.
There she stood, pose after pose, like dancing a prayer to the goddess of life. She spoke of the energy she felt of the creature that stood in front of her, fearful, but accepting of the fate. The deer stood still, granting this exchange. Ms. Miller would not have taken life, if she did not feel the chosen gift that befell her in that single moment, eye-to-eye. Her grief took over, as the bow arched back, and the PING of the arrow pierced Mother Nature’s blessing to her.
There she slumped, a thud on the portable classroom floor as if she and the deer were one. The pain, piercing. The tears, welling. She cradled into herself, as she spoke of the prayer of thanks to Mother Nature, and to this sacred life that would supply abundance for her family.
She laid there, silent, weeping. Many recognized the end of act one and began to plunge words on to paper. I with tears, and flooded emotion, paused at the profound effect that this and each of her stories had on me. I write, because the story is mine to tell. I write, without judgement, because the critique is someone else’s business. I write, because Ms. Miller instilled in me the power that words hold.
I am not certain when our relationship turned from teach and student, to mentor and human, to her announcement of me being the same for her. She understood me, my eccentricity, my offbeat step. I recognized this in her, that while many may have uttered hurtful words to describe her, she did not heed them or give them space to reside in her. She kept to the path in which she knew she could lead.
She embraces people’s differences, holds them with respect, and loves people genuinely and authentically. I knew these things as a junior, that I wanted to follow the path of gratefulness she carries. She taught me that I could be proud of my differences, and that I can be what she was to me for others.
There have been a handful of people that have been so influential in my life. They stay close to my heart and have remained in my life. I write about her today, because she deserves to hear just how much she saved me in my youth and gave me space to begin to craft my own prose. I remain humbled by the energy she shared back then. I remain humbled by the space and energy she holds for me today. It’s a personal endowment that I do not take for granted. Her motto, “be impeccable with your word”, lives with me.
I recollect her story here, not to take it, but the way I experienced it. It has been on my mind, as I’ve rediscovered the power of words in this project. Doctor Marilyn Miller has been an anchor in my life, as she has been to many students. Her determination to continue reaching for dreams is an aspiration. There is never a time when you can’t achieve what has always been possible; what has always been a part of you.
She gave me a safe space to develop my voice, grow into myself, and embrace the craft of the page. As I moved from my junior year, I had the pleasure of enrolling in her advanced courses as a senior. That year I dove long into the world of language and prose, journalism and communications.
I earned a place in our advanced writing program, the Accolade; the literary magazine produced annually by a student run staff and advised by another wonderful teacher, Mr. Anderson. I was nominated to become the Marketing Director and handled our sales advertising and fundraising events.
I joined the school newspaper, writing a small column; Happening in the Halls. I enjoyed learning layout and the print process. I also assisted with the yearbook development, catching photos and quotes for all the little things to be added.
I was in Advanced European History, in which I learned of writing styles and works in the early times of the written word. I joined Ms. Millers Impromptu Debate group; learning how to project and present. I took Advanced Communications in which I was approved to write about LGBTQ+ high school students in the late 90’s and how difficult it was. I wasn’t out then, but knew I belonged more with the kids in this particular club than I did with the Mormon kids.
I sang in the choir; high soprano. I was an officer in our M.E.S.A. club. I took College Algebra. I worked an almost full-time job. All of this to keep myself busy, learning, and able to take on the world. I had moved out of my mother’s house for the second time well before my senior year ended in 1999. I just needed to find my way in the world.
Little did I know that what I was learning I’d carry into my career and develop into real passion. I was young when becoming a graphic designer was a goal. I still hadn’t seen that all the things I loved to do was shaping me even more to become who I am today.
I owe a great deal of thanks for the teachers I have had throughout my life. Doctor Miller, your love and empathy provide the shape for this memory. You are an angel of compassion, composure, and regality. Thank you for providing dignity to humanity.
This weird, awkward, crazy kid wouldn’t be here today without you…
So those reading this next collection here in The Shape of Our Dignity, I hope you move through the moment with this challenge…
Free-form Journal Entry: find a moment to sit and recollect a memory of someone who profoundly influenced you and your life. Open a journal, begin to write; no judgement, no editing, no erasing. Give yourself permission, just as I have in this journey, and acknowledge that which has given you space.
And Dr. Miller, (stolen right from you) “Be impeccable with your word; Don’t take anything personally; Don’t make assumptions; Do your best.”
Sean Childers-Gray is a designer, writer, trans advocate, and educator. This essay was originally published on his Substack, The Shape of Our Dignity.