Rachel Wetzsteon, a phenomenal poet who had an ease and grace with words like no other, was my first creative writing teacher at William Paterson University and most likely the reason I ended up pursuing writing as a career.
I met her in the earlier part of the decade (I can't remember the year). The way she approached writing and fostered the creativity of her students was like nothing I'd ever experienced. Though my major was in communication, I took two of her writing classes as electives to fulfill my degree requirements, because I loved her teaching style and approach to writing.
At that time in my life, I had abandoned any inclination I'd had previously as a writer/author of fiction. My path was centered on journalism and editing, not creative writing or literature. Her enthusiasm for poetry and the written word was stunning (and I am in no way a fan of poetry). She introduced me to the concept of the writing workshop and taught me to channel emotion and perspective into words and form.
I remember my husband and I had ventured into the city one night to hear her read her poetry at a 92nd Street Y event. We were a relatively new couple and the trip was a little adventure for two people learning about each other. I remember that one of my daughter's baby bottles was in my backpack and had leaked over everything inside. Rachel helped me get control of the mess.
When she began to read her poems about living in New York City during and after the Sept. 11 attacks, a hush fell upon the audience and there was simply no looking away from the beautiful, passionate woman upon whom the spotlight shone. The emotion with which she read her words brought me into her world at that place and time, letting me view the post-apocalyptic city through the eyes of the native. She moved me in ways I didn't know was possible that night, and I stood in awe of her talent and mastery.
I took a few courses with her in graduate school, happy to have a familiar face in class, since I had zero contacts in the English department. A year or so ago, I ran into her at William Paterson as I was doing some administrative task. I hadn't seen her in years, and so much had changed for us both. Yet, she remembered me, even though she looked like the weight of the world had been placed in her care. I told her I was a teacher in the department, and she congratulated me on my success, as any colleague and former teacher would. I felt a certain sense of belonging at her words, knowing that I'd transitioned from being her student to being her peer. The feeling was very strange, I must admit.
When I spoke with a colleague earlier today, who had also attended the WPU master's program with me, she told me that Rachel had taken her own life over the holidays. It's believed that she died either on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, but was not found until the 28th. The thoughts that go with that fact are ones I can't face as I write this, other than it is an unjust conclusion for a life so brilliant.
Rachel was light and energy, she was laughter and passion, she was corniness and sophistication, and vitality and grace all at once.Yet, it's believed that severe depression over the ending of a relationship was the catalyst for her actions. That's something I can understand, having lived with being a clinical depressive most of my life. But I have trouble seeing the Rachel I remember being overtaken by the great chemical beast that is depression. True, I did not know her much on a personal level. I have no idea what her day-to-day life was about or whom she loved in this world. But the woman I knew seemed indomitable, with an insatiable appreciation of life and its nuances and details. And that is how I will always remember her.
So, as I prepare to go to class now, to walk in the footsteps of teaching writing and literature that she did not even know she'd left, I will think of her and all she gave me. I will thank her for her kind spirit and encouragement, her interest and dedication, and most of all for her talent. Goodbye, Rachel. I will miss you.