On my first day of Teaching Creative Writing class this semester, our professor asked us each to tell about a favorite teacher and what made them stand out. I told about Ms. (Joan) Nogueda, who was my English teacher during my first and last years of high school.
|Joan Nogueda, ceramic tile|
Ms. Nogueda was an anomaly in the halls of high school. Everything she did, she did differently. Instead of use overhead fluorescent fixtures, she brought in lamps to light the classroom with an ambient glow that soothed our adolescent nerves. The walls she covered with replicas of medieval tapestries—her favorite literary period from which she once taught us to recite Middle English. Once a year there was a medieval banquet for seniors, when we could don period dress and bake for the feast.
On the first day of my freshman year, when I was just thirteen, I found myself in the front row of English class staring up at Ms. Nogueda with fright and wonder. I turned around to whisper to a friend, “She looks like a witch!” Maybe it was her ivory skin in contrast with the frizzled hair dyed black, or the sharp blue-gray eyes set back by hooded eyelids above her slightly hooked nose. Or perhaps it was the way she stood, regal in her ruby dress—the custom-made sleeves strangely puffed and the skirt long—and the way she thoughtfully fingered the beads at her breast, reminding me also of a queen. Certainly she bestowed her magic and power upon us.
“Take out a piece of paper with lighting speed,” Ms. Nogueda would say before our 'homework checks'—in-class written responses to a question she’d pose about our reading, teaching us to use the text to support our claims with evidence. Then she would light a single candle, thick and white and unscented, to mark the time. The atmosphere brought something sacred to the work we did—not the ordinary busywork of institutionalized learning, of time wasted watching clocks tick—but of creating, of critical thinking, of putting thoughts to the page. Our time, measured instead by the slow melting of that candle, meant something.
Ms. Nogueda’s AP English Literature class was my first jaunt into interdisciplinary studies, where I developed an appreciation for and understanding of the crossover links within the Humanities. Starting with Beowulf and then Chaucer, we proceeded through the masters, always beginning with a fascinating lecture on the socio-historical context of each period and how it influenced, or was influenced by, the author’s content and form. At lunch I’d eagerly ask my best friend Barbra, who had Ms. Nogueda’s class in the morning, what I was to look forward to. Each time, whether studying the romantics or existentialists, her response was always the same: “Dude, it’s totally our philosophy.
I remember how my face flushed red when Ms. Nogueda asked me to read aloud my critical essay in class. Her vote of confidence resulted in my receiving the Bank of America Achievement Award in English my senior year, and she wrote a recommendation letter for the Colorado College (where I spent one year before transferring to UC Santa Cruz). I visited her once again in her classroom 15 years ago (ten years after I graduated) and watched her deliver those same inspiring lectures from behind her podium.
I’ve since lost touch, but I still have a thank you card from my senior year in which she wrote: “What a lovely gift—surpassed only by your beautiful letter and your equally beautiful character.” The only information I could find in a Google search was from the website The Clay Garden: Ceramics and Mosaic in the Garden, with her tiles from 2009. It says: “An admirer of the Arts and Crafts style, she started working with clay about 3 years ago for the first time.” I can’t help but notice a striking similarity to the card I’ve kept all these years:
|Joan Nogueda, ceramic|
|Grapevine Panels, Tiffany Studios (card)|