By Sheryl Noethe
Teachers & Writers Collaborative is turning 50 years old this fall. To celebrate this milestone, we asked people who have been part of T&W’s work over the last five decades to tell their stories. In this 50th story, poet Sheryl Noethe writes about becoming a T&W teaching artist and receiving the gift of a life in literature and education.
Newly married and living in Manhattan I applied for a position as a typist at the New York Times. Everyone seemed so friendly, smiling widely at me. I had one finger off position for the test, and so I got 98 words a minute and 82 mistakes. As I was guided to the exit, the manager told me if I was to try and apply again, wear clothing that matched. Those friendly people were laughing at my apparel.
Tearfully I walked up to the address of Teachers & Writers Collaborative, on the recommendation of a friend. Nancy Shapiro interviewed me and we discovered we were from the same area in Minnesota. She hired me and became my mentor.
When I arrived back at the apartment, my husband had read my journals and poems and scattered them around the room. After he calmed some, he asked if I’d gotten a job yet. Yes, I said, proudly. How much does it pay, he questioned. I realized I hadn’t asked.
I loved the richness of culture and language and I was exposed to the tender hearts of children. I’d never imagined the joy of poetry like I had with these schoolchildren. In the South Bronx my students walked me to the subway to insure my safety. They also opened a world to me—a relationship with the most underserved kids who showed resilience, courage, and love.
I also got to meet other writers-in-the-schools and we collaborated and commiserated. During my years in the city, I moved four times due to rent prices and housing court.
Then one day Nancy Shapiro asked if I could withstand going to Salmon, Idaho, and teaching both students and teachers about the glory of language. I jumped at the idea, flew west, and rented a cabin and purchased a Jeep Commando with a stick shift, which I’d never learned to drive, and fought with it until I became known to the car repair shop. I learned to chop wood and keep the fire burning through the night. I got to know everyone in this small, hard-to-reach place. We had a poetry column in the local newspaper and a spot on the radio. When students read their work at a grand finale, the entire room was packed. It was standing room only.
Nancy asked me if I would consider working in Tarrytown at the New York School for the Deaf. I had experience as a mime and it seemed quite a natural step. I was at the school for thirteen years, three months every year. The deaf kids taught me my sign language. The teenagers taught me sex signs in place of food signs. After a disastrous encounter in the cafeteria, the teachers suggested I attend night school classes with a deaf man who spoke French. The classes were fun and I learned how to sign more properly.
T&W taught me how to work with any number or type of students. When I finally moved to Montana, where I met my forever husband, I was eventually encouraged to found a program like T&W, putting writers into classrooms, and the Missoula Writing Collaborative born. It has been 23 years now and tens of thousands of young writers have been introduced to their own creativity and sensibilities.
Whenever I had a question or a problem I could call Nancy and ask for suggestions and ideas. T&W gave me the opportunity to have a life based upon literature and education, surprise and elation. It is the base of my working life and home to the realization that I could indeed continue doing the most important work in the world. I am filled with gratitude.
About the Author:
Born and raised in Minnesota, Sheryl Noethe now lives at the foot of Mt. Jumbo in Missoula, Montana. She is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Montana Arts Council, the CutBank Hugo Prize in Poetry, the Emerging Voices Award from New Rivers Press, and an honorable mention for the Pushcart Prize. Her poetry collections include The Ghost Openings; As Is; and Grey Dog Big Sky, winner of the 2014 High Plains Book Award for Poetry. From 2011–2013, Noethe served as Montana’s poet laureate.