Kind. Brilliant. Gone. I wish I had seen my NMH English teacher again. BY M AYA RIBA ULT ’93
“ Audrey’s classes remain etched in my mind like cinematic memories.”
Maya Ribault recently earned an MFA in poetry from Bennington College. Her poems “Society of Fireflies” and “Bees” have been published in The New Yorker.
As an adult, I’ve learned that I prefer vast swaths of solitude. It’s a trait I was only vaguely aware of as a young person. When I arrived at NMH as a new junior, I struggled to adapt to the intensely communal setting of boarding school, and often felt so raw and vulnerable that just catching a friendly smile from someone on the way to class could trigger uncontrollable sobbing in me. Yet my NMH experience remains sacred. My head, hand, and heart were nurtured, filled with a sap that I still tap into to this day, even though my two years on the Northfield campus weren’t easy ones. The first few months, I dreaded the moment I’d have to get off the phone with my mom. The calls were placed from a basement payphone you’d wait in line for, one that allowed for little privacy. Although I was self-conscious, I didn’t mind pouring my angst into that Gould Hall phone. My mom would listen, and coach me on what to do next. Most often her advice was, Take a long walk. Then she’d hang up and I’d be left with a void as big as the golf course I would walk to afterward. Along the way, the lit clapboard houses, the whiff of burning leaves, the waning light through the trees comforted me. What also comforted me was the kindness and brilliance of my mentors and teachers. I spent hours doing schoolwork in the kitchen of my college counselor Yvonne Jones and sitting on the carpet in Lisa Schmidt’s living room, getting help with my physics homework and life in general. And in my English class with Audrey Sheats, I found the teacher who steered me onto the path of being the poet I am today. In the spring of junior year, I applied to take AP English and was devastated when I didn’t make the cut. But as my senior year
began, that feeling of not getting something I dearly wanted yielded to an experience beyond my wildest dreams. The classes with Audrey remain etched in my mind like cinematic memories. She had us read aloud from The Joys of Motherhood by Buchi Emecheta — and when I landed the passage with the sex scene, she chided us for our 17-year-old snickers, which left me with a sense that sex could be something beautiful. One day she abdicated from teaching altogether and let us read silently — The Mill on the Floss — for an hour. I managed a B in her class, except for the A’s that we all received on our autobiographies. Audrey told us, “You’re the oldest of children becoming the youngest of adults,” and facilitated for each of us a private journey inward. During our last class, she declared that she wanted to hug all of us at graduation. I lost touch with Audrey, Yvonne, and Lisa after I left NMH. I never said thank-you in person. As time passed, I felt that I wanted to achieve something before I returned to campus, to prove that my mentors’ belief in me had been well founded. The form I decided this achievement should take coalesced into one thing: a novel. Drafts were written. Plot charts were taped to apartment walls. Then in 2009, as I flipped through an issue of this magazine, I came upon news of Audrey’s death. I had waited too long. I have several NMH regrets that linger. I wish I hadn’t dated my friend’s crush the winter of my junior year. I wish I had contributed to Mandala, the literary magazine. I wish I’d tried out for the cross-country team, and won a pie at least once. (With some training, it surely could have happened!) And I wish I had gone back to see Audrey, the teacher who unearthed my voice. [NMH]
The Magazine of Northfield Mount Hermon