My very first psychology teacher died.
In my junior year of high school I was stuck between two lives. In one, I was a great student, incredibly bright, with a promising future and full of potential.
In the other I was overcome by a lifetime of relational trauma, smoked my weight in weed every month, and ate way, way too many Percocet.
Before I chose the latter of those two, I made a final attempt to choose the former.
I tested into AP psych and AP literature.
My lit teacher, Ruth Ann McKinney, was tough as shit and had a reputation – one she seemed to enjoy – as easier on the fellas than on the ladies.
And ya know what? I believe she was. Because she knew all about the double bind in which women find themselves. We have to work twice as hard for half the pay, half the respect, half the benefits of men in most contexts. The world is harder on women than on men. So Ruth Ann McKinney did what she could to prepare us for that.
And I did earn a significant amount of her respect, I think. For a bit. She started, on the first day of class, with an attempt at shaming me publicly for having my eyebrow pierced.
“Why would you do some idiotic shit like that to your face,” was the gist of her question to me as we went around the room introducing ourselves.
I used a big word correctly. That was my first interaction with Ruth Ann McKinney, and she dug it. Her whole face softened for a minute and the silence that descended in the room was palpable. I remember a few concerned glances from a few concerned classmates who were sure I’d just committed an inexplicable act of academic seppuku in front of everyone, for no discernable reason, but I could read her for one split second and she was impressed, and amused, in equal measure.
It felt fucking amazing.
I’ve always been proud of that one tiny moment in my life. It sparkles every time I recall it.
Anyhow, AP psych was another favorite thing about school for me, and I hated basically everything about school except McKinney, AP psych, and my Greek mythology class.
I was such a nerd, so long before nerdery was cool.
Bonavita was my first psychology teacher, and while I stand by my feeling that becoming a clinician was not for me, I also recognize that the majority of talent I have as a writer comes, in significantly large part, from the depth and breadth of my academic psychology background.
Writing creative nonfiction, things like personal essay and memoir, depend on an ability to develop a relationship with a reader who, in most cases, you never even meet. Effective writers are able to make a connection with a reader on a personal level, and the depth of that connection is directly correlated with the success of their writing. Fiction, too, requires an understanding of human motivation in order to create compelling and identifiable characters.
I’ve always felt somewhat indebted to John Bonavita. He was a really good teacher. He took a challenging subject and made it interesting, fun, and easy. Most importantly, he took a subject that I was interested in and didn’t ruin it with bad, boring teaching. He actually took an interest and turned it into a passion through outstanding teaching.
I was shocked to see his obituary come into the newsroom last night. There’s something cathartic about processing obituaries in a small town. Often, you are one of the first people in the larger community to learn about a person’s death, and when you’ve had even a minor personal relationship with them on any level, in any context, good or bad, processing their obituary takes on a bit of a sacred feeling. I don’t mean it to sound so dramatic. It’s not. And sacred is not the right word but it’s the best one I can find right now. Solemn. Reverent. It’s some combination of these big abstract concepts.
Anyhow. Peace out, Mr. Bonavita. You always said your name meant “good life.” It sounds like that’s what you lived, my man.
Thanks for teaching me how to read the DSM. I’ll never forget the diagnostic criteria for Anxiety Disorder NOS.
Also, this week’s column is one I’m pretty happy with. So here ya go. It’s about online dating.