“Do you mean to tell me,” you shouted out, fearless in front of the entire faculty, “that I’m getting rated on tests my students won’t take, and evaluated on progress that I have no control over?” Your voice hung in the air for a few solitary seconds, leaving the admin team utterly speechless, leaving me utterly in awe.
It was my first faculty meeting at my new school, and I’d gathered, from the tepid reception I’d received, that a silent opinion was the best one to hold here. But Jen, you are not the silent type. You’re the Waterbury, Connecticut, blue-collar-surroundings, East-Coast, voice-of-my-father’s-family type (I found out later that not only was my father from the same town, but even went to the same Catholic high school as you, so I wasn’t so surprised, after the fact, to hear such strong opinions from a fellow New Englander).
You speak your mind in a rainbow of accolades and societal commentary, acknowledging the beauty and pain of each person who passes through your life. Everyone who meets you knows where you stand, how you feel, and to what extent you will bear a cross for them. And anyone who crosses you will have their own cross to bear, because they couldn’t possibly understand the genuinely kind nature of your soul.
When I first met you, you were searching for a clumped-up pile of paper in my classroom as I was pasting posters to the wall.
“I know it looks like trash,” you admitted, “but I promise you it’s not. It was a huge piece of butcher paper that they made me take down, and it had years of students’ artwork, pictures, and writing on it. We put it in this closet and locked it over the summer. Have you seen it?”
I hadn’t. The closet door had been open, the closet mostly empty when I entered, and the paper was gone.
You dejectedly returned to your room across the hall with an enormous sigh, and when I went to check in with you later, you were still devastated.
“It was just so much more than butcher paper… It was years, fifteen years, of my students’ love.”
I wish I had been there to see it, to open that closet door and unwrap their words, to see the light in your eyes as you recollected each and every student who had been blessed with your masterful instruction, your passion, your poetry, your strong and mesmerizing voice.
Over the years, as I’ve listened to snippets of your lessons from across the hall, as I’ve attended the amazing theatre productions that all three of my girls have relished and been astounded by, as I’ve sat with you and listened to your stories at lunch, at the bar, at department meetings, I’ve come to know you as one of the most genuine and beautiful humans I have ever met. Someone who isn’t afraid to use her voice to speak against injustice, isn’t afraid to compliment or criticize, isn’t afraid to expose the world for what it is: a challenging and complex place, a place where you have strived to make a difference for generations of young minds.
Someone who takes the time to write personal letters to each and every drama student, each and every year.
Someone who pursues your education to the highest echelons, always searching for a way to improve your understanding of the world.
Someone who speaks poetry so profoundly that everyone on Earth can relate to the women who work, the women in kitchens and menial jobs and failed marriages, the women we all know and love and hate and learn from, the women who live in your words.
Someone who speaks her mind at a faculty meeting, who speaks the concerns we all have but are too afraid to say.
Someone who speaks to the voice we all have within us, the voice of the silenced, the oppressed, the forgotten.
Over the years, I have listened. And Jen Rinaldi, more than anything, is someone who speaks.
I hope we are all lucky enough to continue to hear what she has to say.
Thank you, Jen, for having such a strong voice.