When I think of Deanne Nipson, I recall a moment last year where Deanne and her friend Syrahh got up on stage during our annual Arts Are Totally Awesome! forum and sang a song called “Darling Nikki” by the artist formerly known as Prince. I saw this time on stage as an evolution of Deanne’s confidence and unique sense of self-expression. Other, more narrow-minded, teachers saw it as “filth.” During that performance, Deanne was self-assured, taking her time and working with some particularly difficult phrasing. That’s hard to achieve unless you have a large mouth like Steven Tyler or Jessica Simpson. One of the great joys of being a high school teacher is the opportunity to see (and teach) “the whole student”; I have been lucky enough to witness Deanne’s prowess in the classroom, on the stage, and briefly on the Quidditch field (our Quidditch team only lasted a few games (or matches. Sue me!) because the rules were far too complicated and then all the kids got into the whole Twilight saga which doesn’t have a game attached or so I’ve been told). I think Deanne will benefit greatly from leaving Red Rock (Go Rockers!) for the college experience.
I was fortunate enough to have Deanne in my American Literature class last year. To be candid, Deanne came in as a rather shy student but over the course of the first semester made specific gestures toward becoming more active in our seminar-style discussions. One of the areas that interested her was gender roles, so she really started to offer her intense ideas when we studied Hamlet, Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. She told me that her interest stemmed from her dream to become a post Riot-Grrrl singer with an emphasis on both womyn and wimmin’s music. I wasn’t exactly sure what she meant so I Googled the terms but it didn’t clear up my confusion much. Didn’t matter, her focus on characters like Ophelia, Gertrude, Daisy Buchanan, Myrtle Wilson and She-Hulk really made this class more interesting for most of us. After she felt comfortable discussing the ideas located within the text, Deanne often shared her fascinating personal history. I recall distinctly during a visit from the writer Nicholson Baker (we were studying his groundbreaking novel, The Mezzanine) when Deanne offered a connection between her life at home and Baker’s painstaking attention to detail. Turned out her mother, a former back-up singer for The Knack, has a hyper case of OCD so attention to detail is an overriding metaphor in the Nipson household. Each night, Deanne has to set the table as if she’s working for the Queen Elizabeth. Deanne uses a ruler and a level (kept handy on a sideboard, worn from frequent polishing) to make sure cutlery, glassware and napkins are in exactly the same place each and every evening. There were also some comments made about calculated chewing, but I didn’t hear them because I thought I saw a bee fly into the room (deathly allergic!). Deanne’s story was detailed, funny (to the other kids, not Deanne) and reflected her honest, open approach to learning. Baker loved her comment and used it as an example. No one was exactly sure of what since Baker was severely sleep deprived during his visit. It was a fine moment for Deanne (and the rest of us), at least to have someone famous say her name in public. Deanne said she was pleased but wished that Baker had been Marilyn Hacker. I was going to make a beard joke, but then I remembered that Deanne abhors most types of humor.
As a writer, Deanne brings that same diversity and creativity to all her written work. After we read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, I gave the students the opportunity to pen a graphic novel. The juniors had already written enough analytical essays for my tired eyes and this legendary assignment connects deeply with visual learners, those well-versed in the graphic arts, and the linguistically challenged. A good graphic novel is no small undertaking (unless you draw stick figures=heavily frowned upon) and requires at least 200-300 times as much work as a traditional essay or story. I warn students to tread lightly and not undertake the assignment if they do not know the form, have ADD or ADHD, or what I call a case of the “trembling hand” when it comes to rendering. Deanne’s graphic novel, however, was most intriguing. The idea and themes pursued through the use of text and images seemed highly sophisticated. Her story, titled “Womb’s Torment”, centered upon a young girl named D. Anne who is trapped in a deep dark cell. Her guard or captor (wasn’t clear which) is an overweight man with a slight gray beard named W. Richard. In “Womb’s Torment”, D. Anne switches between howling in a fetal ball and writing morbid pop songs on the cell’s wall in her own blood. W. Richard also has two default settings: cluelessly aping around picking his feet or screaming misogynist epithets at D. Anne. In the end, D. Anne using her hairpin (the one she tattoos herself with) to pick the lock and murder her captor in a way that is too grisly to repeat in this formal document. All I can reveal here is that D. Anne spits to the corpse, “All mouth and no trousers” as she escapes.I felt a little uncomfortable with the subject matter, so I asked to see Deanne. During sixth period, Coach Stern (his real name) appropriates my classroom for Health and Wellness Wealth and Hellness the kids call it) so I was forced to meet Deanne in what I call my “cloffice.” For reasons I won’t go into here, I no longer use the English office at all. Won’t even meet colleagues there. The janitorial staff agreed after a few requests (some baked goods and a bottle of bourbon) that I could put a desk and an extra chair in their closet for cases like these where I’m forced out of the classroom, a place I’ve worked for over twenty years. True, there are no windows and my cloffice is moist and smells a bit of disinfectant, but there is privacy. Deanne came in dressed in one of her latest creations, a half-dress, half-faux business suit stitched together. She had shaved one side of her head into a crewcut while the other was shoulder length dyed a pinkish purple. Flower earrings on the dress side, nothing on the other. You get the idea. When you allow students to fully express themselves in class and in innovative writing assignments, you need to broach sensitive topics delicately. That way, you won’t break the fragile, eggshell-like trust that allows such groundbreaking work to emerge. She made a derogatory scatological comment about the mopheads drying on the lip of the industrial sink but I let it pass. I then asked her where she got her ideas for “Womb’s Torment.” I made sure to mention the title so she knew that I’d invested in her work, however painful. Deanne acted surprised as if I should already know the answer to my own question. “It’s a metaphor for our relationship.” Then she just stared at me and crossed her arms.
have to admit that I hadn’t picked up on any of it. Looking back, I realize
that the drawing of W. Richard does resemble me as does the name (duh!). I
didn’t want Deanne to think that I hadn’t really understood her work so I
rubbed my chin and said, “That’s what I thought. Very interesting work indeed.”
She replied, “So I’m not in trouble?” I made a face that meant to say “That’s
ridiculous” (only with my face) and asked her why she would think such a thing.
“Well,” she said, “you made me come in this place and some teachers would get
upset, you know.” I reassured her that I had studied Feminist theory in college
(one course) and after all, we were both artists. I then pulled out the copy of
my poetry chapbook I keep in my bag at all times in case I run into someone
from Copper Canyon or Wesleyan Press. I read her read a few stanzas from one of
my more risqué poems called “The Scent of a Woman”, and I could tell by the
look on her face that she really got it. She then complained of a headache from
the fumes and left.
It is my great honor to write this letter in support of this most qualified candidate.
A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle (Bono),
Richard Fulton Winter
1998 Arizona Junior Humanities Excellence in Teaching Award—Honorable Mention
Class Sponsor of the Alternate Student Council
Author of The Bard’s Gentle Graces (poetry chapbook)