Josh Heath | Everyone Has Had That One Mean Teacher

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Once upon a time, I was a member of my high school newspaper, having just arrived as a new student on campus. Like all teenagers in this position, I was anxious, angsty, and knowing no one, often alone. Luckily, I was given a great way to take my mind off these feelings: an assignment to produce an article on the local homeless shelter.  

More specifically, the piece was about how the facility was closing due to a lack of funds. The residents there would be evicted and forced to the streets where misery and death awaited them. Touching on themes of class and poverty, this was exactly the kind of story a professional journalist would chase. 

Excited with this opportunity, I went to the shelter numerous times, interviewed residents and staff, took diligent notes, and then sat at my keyboard to write. Except the article, even after multiple drafts, didn’t turn out very well — something that was attributable to my depression at the time, an illness that is the bane of good writing. 

As a consequence, the teacher in charge of the journalism program delivered a crushing verdict: I did not have any talent and would have to leave the paper. In addition, she declared I should not only give up any dreams of a writing career, but also avoid any profession that involves using words. 

And if that wasn’t enough, my social skills were also insulted, as she claimed my reserved nature was making the other students uncomfortable. It was a surreal moment. 

Like every child suffering from depression, I struggled with self-worth and wondered if I had enough fine qualities to grow up well and prosper. 

Now here was an authority figure, paid to educate and care for the young, voicing my worst fears as if they were absolute truth.

In response, I pleaded with her to let me stay. I could just do fundraising for the paper until my work was up to snuff. Not every student in the journalism program produced articles — some just sold ads, which was something I was clearly good at. (In only a month I managed to find leads with over half a dozen businesses regarding possible ad placements).

She forcefully rejected that idea, her decision was final. After walking out of her classroom for the last time, I retreated to a quiet bench, put my head in my hands and cried.

For some time after, I sulked about the rejection and also continued to reflect on the injustice of our local homeless situation. 

How could such cruelty happen in Santa Clarita, a rich, affluent city? How could we be content with an underfunded shelter that kicked its residents to the streets? As a way of channeling this anger productively, I crafted a community service project to help raise money for the homeless. 

This effort led me to the local wing of the Democratic Party, the Democratic Alliance for Action. I was told there was someone I should meet there who could help me. Awkwardly, I meandered into one of their local meetings at Vincenzo’s Pizza, where I was introduced to Carole Lutness, a vivacious grandmother with a shock of white curls and kind blue eyes. 

She asked me to describe my concept, and I managed to do so, in between a barrage of nervous uh’s and um’s. “I love that idea, that’s great!” She said, with a flattering amount of enthusiasm. “Send me an email with more details.” 

So I did, and she promised to help me by any means possible. Through our work together a friendship was formed that would change the course of my life. Though I ultimately failed to launch the project, as it was simply too bold an idea for a teenager to handle, Carole became an important mentor and led me deep into the world of politics. 

Through her guidance and advice, I managed to garner several key opportunities, including two terms as a delegate to the California Democratic Party, as well as work experience in Congress and on several political campaigns. Altogether, these endeavors formed the backbone of my successful application into UCLA (where if I may add, I aced all my essays).

Such a transformative turnaround did wonders for my self-confidence and during college I gave journalism another try, first at the Santa Clarita Gazette and then writing columns for The Signal. In a reversal that should surprise no one, my work product was drastically different this time around. 

After years of hard work, I managed to produce enough good writing to attract the attention of Cagle Cartoons, a national syndicate, who took me on as a columnist. I am also currently a contributing writer for UCLA’s Blueprint magazine, the university’s premier journal for policy and politics.

What is endlessly fascinating, looking back, is that Carole and the journalism teacher experienced the same exact person: a 17-year old filled with potential but also a deep sadness. 

My journalism teacher saw the after-effects of the second quality — my poor work product and social awkwardness — and came to the conclusion I was someone to discard. A mentor’s affection, in her view, was not something to be wasted on someone like me. I didn’t earn it.

Yet Carole decided to take me under her wing. What would the world be without such people, who have the courage to love in spite of ugliness? They don’t wait until someone is worthy of affection, attractive and achieving things, just like a  gardener would never refuse a plant water until it produced flowers. 

No, the good-hearted understand a higher truth: Love must come first, for it is the source of all human flourishing.

Josh Heath is a Santa Clarita resident.

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