The creative writing teacher who read me like a book and changed my life

 PHOTOS COURTESY OF CLARA SNOYER/FOGHORN

Clara Snoyer is a sophomore English major. 

In honor of Women’s History Month, I want to thank someone who has both inspired me and shaped me into the woman I am today. She is an authentic, artistic, optimistic, and empathetic soul, and the best lifelong friend and mentor for which I could have ever asked. Her name is Ms. Cyndi Dumas, and she taught me creative writing in high school. 

Growing up with social anxiety and poor self esteem, I have always been one of the shyest people in the room. I had been a writer my entire life, but in the spring of my junior year, I finally decided to take the creative writing elective my high school offered that I had been putting off because of insecurity about my writing, mental health issues, and my time commitment to our high school band. 

It was in this class that I met the whimsical Ms. Dumas. Instead of standing before us at the front of the room, she sat in a circle with us on the first day of class. Her legs were comfortably crossed from years of practicing yoga, her messy blonde hair was in scraggly curls at her shoulders, her wise, heart-shaped face smiled at us, and her chic bohemian outfit of muted colors was accented with a pop of color. She had a radiant, honest way of speaking that filled the room with ease and an invitation to be ourselves there. But, when she asked me what writing meant to me, I didn’t know what to say. 

Ms. Dumas reached out after another week of my being quiet in her class. I was heading to the band hall for percussion rehearsal when I checked my email and found she had left a comment on my first assignment. “I think you are the most interesting person in the room, but I don’t want to put you on the spot. I like that writing has given you confidence and I hope you will speak up when I ask for volunteers. You are the real deal,” she had written. For the first time in my life, a teacher took the time to make me feel safe to speak. Ms. Dumas went beyond giving me permission — she genuinely invited me to share the whole world inside of my head with her. I knew she wanted to listen. 

After that simple act of kindness, I let my guard down and we became quick friends. Things can easily get personal in a creative writing class, and I worked out a lot of my trauma on the page, so Ms. Dumas soon became aware of the inner-workings of my relationships with family, friends, enemies, and boyfriends. 

Through her class, she exposed me to two of my favorite writers to this day — Raymond Carver and Mary Oliver. I still have my wrinkled, underlined, coffee-stained copy of Carver’s “Cathedral” as a keepsake. 

We’ve been friends for three years now and she is still my biggest fan, despite the fact that I’m no longer one of her students. When I was her student, though, Ms. Dumas cheered me on when I auditioned to be the marching band’s drum major, pushed me to be more courageous in my writing, and even came to my high school graduation party. Today, we go to coffee shops, bakeries, painting classes, and bookstores together. We exchange pieces of writing for feedback and she tells me to my face when I’m not challenging myself enough (as much as I may dislike it). Sometimes, we even hang out at her home in East Dallas and watch artsy films or talk about life while her Great Dane, chocolate Lab, and cat climb all over us. 

I have always felt the need to do something meaningful with my life, but I have not always known quite how to get there. Growing up in a relatively conservative family in Dallas, Texas and attending a homogenized private Catholic high school, it was seen as a little unusual to pursue art, and want to make a difference in the world beyond just becoming a loyal wife and mother.

So Ms. Dumas — in all of her individualistic, radiant glory — was the first real adult artist I ever met. During a writing lecture Ms. Dumas and I attended a couple of years ago, we were asked to introduce ourselves as what we identified as — a nurse, student, teacher, mother, etc. While I introduced myself as a student, it shocked me that Ms. Dumas, whom I had always seen as my teacher, introduced herself as a writer. I think it was at that moment that my admiration for her and dream to be exactly like her in my adulthood solidified. 

When Ms. Dumas came into my life, I realized I had the power to reach the artistic potential everyone had been telling me I had for years. Importantly, Ms. Dumas also taught me that I would ultimately only reach that potential if I kept with my writing and held myself accountable as a creator. One of our favorite Mary Oliver poems “The Summer Day” poses the question: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?” It is still one of my favorite questions to ponder to this day.

When I first met Ms. Dumas — a nurturing educator, an enlightened woman, and a beautiful role model — I was not in as mentally healthy a place as I am now. I owe her credit for who I am today as a more empowered woman and vulnerable writer. In a letter Ms. Dumas wrote to me my senior year, she said, “I have seen you grow so much in the time that I have known you. You have come out of your shell slowly — sometimes in spite of not wanting to — and you have taken a place in the spotlight where you belong. You are destined for greatness. I love and believe in you so much.” 

Behind every great woman is one or more women who let us know it was okay to speak our minds growing up, to dare to dream to be exactly what we wanted, who encouraged us to express who we are, no matter what others thought. 

Behind every great woman is one or more women who let us know it was okay to speak our minds growing up, to dare to dream to be exactly what we wanted, who encouraged us to express who we are, no matter what others thought. 

Although I am still quiet and very much a goody-two-shoes, my friendship with Ms. Dumas has taught me how liberating and self-exploratory it can be to be bad sometimes. She showed me that I must absolutely stumble around and explore new opportunities I’m uncertain of if I am going to really live my one wild and precious life to the fullest. Ms. Dumas’ presence in my life reminds me every day that someone out there wants to hear what I have to say, and that the thoughts I produce, both aloud and on paper, have the power to change a person’s life, as her’s did to mine.

One thought on “The creative writing teacher who read me like a book and changed my life

  1. Claira, what a beautiful love letter full of genuine gratitude and love. Ms. Dumas is an amazing person and friend and it makes my heart sing to hear you speak so highly of her. I wish you all the best and continue nurturing that amazing friendship you two have. You are a wonderful writer and I can’t to read one of your books or short stories, blogs, or whatever. You inspire me.

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