The BMV, Mrs. McCoy and a Better Word

I don’t know how many of you have gone to the BMV and applied for an Indiana Real ID yet, but, for me, jumping through the “proofs” has been a nightmare. You basically have to prove that you exist and you are who you say you are. How existential! My one piece of advice: keep your original name. For every name change, you have to provide a court document stating how, when and why each time the name changed. My original name change (and yes, there have been a few more via divorce and remarriage) came at the well-intentioned behest of my maternal grandmother. Due to the dissolution of the marriage of my young parents and my father’s subsequent move to a “Bohemian” lifestyle, my mother and grandmother agreed I should be free of the Gott surname and take the last name of my stepfather, Myers.

So it was in early adolescence, I found myself walking through the echoing halls of the Montgomery County courthouse. With Grandma Dorothy by my side, I marveled at the formality of the building with its wooden handrails guarding either side of the marble staircase. The air smelled faintly of cigarette smoke and Old Spice. Men in suits whispered in corners. They stopped to glance at the woman and child tentatively seeking their destination. Finally the familiar face of our attorney emerged from one of the courtrooms and ushered us in.

I trembled; partly from fear and admittedly from excitement. My adolescent self was indignant as I sat in a chair before a judge and declared, under oath, that my father, one R. S. Gott was not a part of my life and I didn’t want anything to do with him. I wanted my last name of Gott removed officially from my first and middle name. I would gladly take on the name of my stepfather, John Richard Myers, with whom I did not reside. I was all dressed up and ready to make my debut as the new and refurbished Gwynn Ellen Myers. Grandma Dorothy looked on as she sidled up to the lawyer she had hired who asked me the hard questions.

“Do you ever see your father?” I shake my head.

“Do you receive any money from your father?” I utter a weak, “no.”

“What happened the last time you spoke to your father?”

I had to recollect an early morning call ( Dad was calling from the Pacific Coast ) that prompted me to throw up in a half-bath. I don’t know if it was the early hour or the slurred speech on the other end of the phone that caused my stomach to lurch. I only know my grandmother was determined to ghost the paternal side of my family. Now the courts were involved and it was official. I was no longer a Gott.

Five years later and I’m sitting in my high school Creative Writing Class at Crawfordsville High School taught by Jane McCoy. I spent most of the time turning around, flirting with my high school sweetheart. Mrs. McCoy was a dedicated and passionate teacher of English. I feigned disinterest when she spoke but I had one ear always trained on her. I had been writing since I was nine years old. What could she possibly teach me? She took me aside after class once and said, “You are too young to be so cynical.” I’m pretty sure I shrugged my shoulders and avoided eye contact. Instead of self-examination as to why I came across that way, I dug in even more. In honors Biology, each student was assigned a fetal pig to dissect. I named mine “Jane C. McCoy.” The name garnered plenty of laughs from my fellow classmates. She couldn’t touch me. I was beyond penetration. The fortress of feeling was vacant.

Nearly thirty years later while attending a writing workshop at the University Of Tennessee in Knoxville, our leader fed us the prompt – “Write a letter to a teacher who influenced your life.” I immediately thought of Mrs. McCoy. In my letter, I apologized for the way I treated her and gave her the appreciation she deserved:

I always felt a little sorry for you. I knew you were a widow from Kentucky. I thought it was brave of you to drive through a snowstorm on that January night in 1969 to hear Robert Penn Warren speak at Purdue. It was then I realized how much you loved your job. You shared with us your passion and excitement of one of the great American poets.

Mrs. McCoy, you sacrificed for your students. Your passion for reading great literature and teaching writing to an unappreciative bunch of high school kids was your life. You were a teacher with dignity. I wish I could take your class one more time and ask questions I didn’t ask before. And this time, I would face the front of the room.

If you were to ask any student who had Mrs. McCoy during her tenure at CHS, they would tell you she influenced their lives. They would say they became better writers because of her. And on one particular day in the Spring of 1969, she innocently brought the walls down around me. In her efforts to impart tidbits of wisdom in writing class she stated her mantra, which to this day is a collective cry from all Crawfordsville High School English students from 1968-1974. It goes, “There is always a better word than got.” She had no idea.

Gwynn Wills is a former speech therapist, certified Amherst Writers and Artists workshop Affiliate and Leader and founder of The Calliope Writers Group. After growing up in Crawfordsville, her and her husband returned several years ago.