In that past few weeks, two of my articles have made reference to teachers I have had and the impact they had on me, either at the time or realized in the years afterwards and with the start of the new school year, I have been working on some tributes to some of these individuals who endured one or more years with me and to whom I owe a debt of gratitude.
I may not have necessarily liked them all the time, nor agreed with them on everything but time has proven to me that my perspective at that point in my life was flawed by the immaturity of youth and the stubbornness that runs in my family. Ironically, much of my work in community service now centers on education, including chairing the board of a local technical college, serving on the school board of my son’s school and having served for several years on the local Head Start board. Being exposed to these organizations as well as my own personal reflections have proven to me that outside of one’s own parents, there is no person better situated to influence a life than teachers and they leave behind a lot of legacies over the decades they spend in the classroom molding the minds of tomorrow. During my school years, I attended three area schools: Indian Springs Academy, Piedmont Academy and Jackson High School. The individuals who taught at those three schools helped to mold me and countless others and to each of them, I owe them far more than just a written sentence or two. I debated whether to use their real names here and decided I would. They deserve to be known for who they are.
Kathleen Knight, my kindergarten teacher, started me on the path through school. From her I learned about colors and shapes, how to share, how to pledge to my flag and my A-B-C’s. When my son met her recently, he was in awe that this soft-spoken, gray-haired lady that comes up to my chin was his Daddy’s kindergarten teacher and is now his friend. Every time I pledge allegiance to the flag, I remember well her instruction: “stand up straight, right hand, over the heart, eyes on the flag from start to finish”. Yes Mrs. Knight, always and to this day.
Linda McClelland, my first grade teacher, pointed me forward and gave me simple numbers to add and words to learn. Her classroom always smelled of crayons and wood shavings from the overused, hand cranked pencil sharpener that was mounted to the wall and visited by every one of us daily. She read us stories and taught us how to finger-paint, was feared for her wrath and loved for her obvious care and concern over each of us. Her son Clay and I went through ten years of school together at two different schools and he was the bravest, funniest and ultimately, the kindest hearted of all the boys in my class. He died last year and all of us miss him. Miss Linda built the foundation of our education with the sturdiest, most enduring building blocks at her disposal and time has proven her skill at laying brick on the pathway of learning.
I was blessed with Marilyn Raynor for two years in a row; whether she was blessed to have me might be a difference of opinion. As both my second and third grade teacher, she was a powerful influence because she taught me how to read and did it so well that she had to outsource me and one other kid to the 4th grade teacher during reading instruction. She didn’t do quite so well trying to teach me to write in cursive but that was truly more of a resistance on my part than any failure on hers. She always brought a large red plaid thermos of coffee to school every day and I remember how good it smelled when she would first crack the lid open, allowing the hot vapors to escape before pouring it into the built-in mug that served as a cap. On our first day of class together, I realized I knew her from somewhere and she informed me that she was actually the sister of my uncle that had married my mother’s sister. He had died four years earlier at a very young age so she was in fact my aunt’s sister-in-law. My seven-year old mind deduced that if she was the sister of any uncle of mine, even one related to me only by marriage, then she had to be my aunt. When I told her of her my conclusion and how I arrived at this, she just smiled and said “Well I guess that does” and from that point, Aunt Marilyn she was and Aunt Marilyn she has remained to this day. My parents eventually gave up trying to convince me otherwise and did nothing further to point out my error in genealogy. It is a uniquely Southern tradition that as well as having aunts and uncles by blood and marriage, we have the ones we choose to adopt and who take on that role willingly. Aunt Marilyn and Uncle Ray are as much my aunt and uncle as any given to me by birth and from her, I gained a third grandmother in Nanny Barber as a bonus. Aunt Marilyn has doted on me for forty years and on my son since he was born and I owe to her my love of reading and much more.
I did not like Nancy Jo Cooper until she actually became my sixth grade teacher. I wrongfully thought she was mean because she could yell at you like a Georgia Bulldog fan at homecoming so it was with no large amount of enthusiasm that I entered her classroom for the first time. Once we came to terms on my refusal to write in anything but manuscript (I proved to her that I COULD write in cursive but that I didn’t care to) we settled into a routine that was much more productive and rewarding. She introduced us to a favorite book of hers, “Cheaper by the Dozen” and read the entire book to us over the course of several weeks, covering a chapter a day. She didn’t just read to us though, she brought the characters to life using a multitude of tones, expressions and a bit of acting as she read from each page. This book remains a favorite of mine and one I hope to introduce to my son someday. On a personal level though, she did one thing for me that has stayed with me ever since and for which I will always be grateful. She found out that I had recently discovered and was developing a passion for classical music and that I understood music, a trait we both shared, and she encouraged me constantly to pursue it. She loaned me cassette tapes of the greatest of the great composers and through her, I was exposed to the finest works of Bach, Beethoven, Wagner, Handel and many more. The only thing I can remember that was written in my long-lost yearbook from that year was her words to me: “Follow your love of music with all your heart and it will bring you joy the rest of your life”. That was her last year at that school and I never saw her again after that but she gave me one of the most enduring gifts of my life in sharing her music with me.
Miriam Cook was reluctant to have me in her World History class. World History was a tenth grade subject and I was a ninth grade student at a new school, along with many of my classmates who changed that year to a different area school. The school I had attended since kindergarten was failing and my parents sent me to a private school south of Atlanta for my eighth grade year where I had taken a year of civics as my block of history instruction. Since ninth grade history at my new school was civics, the headmaster decided to put me in with the tenth grade history class. Mrs. Cook didn’t think a ninth grader could handle the requirements of the class and I didn’t put much faith in her if she wasn’t going to try. I soon realized I had underestimated her resolve to teach, because as much as I was determined to prove her wrong, she was equally determined to make sure I succeeded. I quickly grew very fond of her, which was good because history was always my best subject in school and having a good history teacher was important to me. Mrs. Cook turned out to be one of the two best history teachers I ever had, teaching her subject with an almost evangelical fervor and bringing so much passion to her subject that even the Peloponnesian War became interesting. The last day of school that year, I received my final report card and an “A” for the yearly cumulative grade. I remember the hug she gave me and her telling me “I am so PROUD of you”. I didn’t get a lot of “A” grades in school but that one I was particlarly proud of. I lost touch with her after I left that school but recently ran into her. Feeling certain she would not remember me, I learned again that you don’t underestimate Mrs. Cook. Thank you for igniting my love of history in new ways and for never giving up on me.
Charlotte Crawley was one of the hardest teachers that I ever had and she was not one of my favorites when I had her for ninth grade English but in hindsight, I realize she was one of the best teachers I had and I wasn’t perceptive enough to know that then. She introduced me to one of my favorite books, “To Kill a Mockingbird” and she also taught me (somehow it sunk in) how to properly structure most sentences, although I take some license with that when I write as my own personal style. One part of her instruction that was a daily routine was her “Word of the Day”, which she would write in the upper left corner of the blackboard. We were to learn it and I think we were tested on it each week as part of our overall testing regimen. Vocabulary was one of my strong suits but she threw a lot of words to us that I had never heard of….but many of them are words I actually use in my writing. The first day of class with her, our word was “Panacea”, which is a remedy for all diseases, or a “cure all”. Today we might just as easily use the slang phrase “quick fix” but there is just something about using a single word that flows off the tongue and that gets the job done so completely that is personally satisfying. Whether I intended for her to do it or not, Mrs. Crawley made me into a better writer and I wish I had known that and had the good sense to appreciate it more at the time.
I spent my last years in high school attending the local school system, which was the first time I had ever been to a public school, yet I learned within weeks that public school teachers were just as passionate and just as dedicated to their student’s success as those in the public school system. Three of them come to mind.
Cheryl Hildebrand, who I took a number of classes from, is not tall in stature but she does stand tall among her peers and from her I took classes in literature, composition and journalism, which included the yearbook and school newspaper. Cheryl gave me my very first column to write for the school newspaper and I still have it-in fact, I may post it on here sometime so I can see how my style has changed in nearly thirty years. In addition to being a great English teacher who tried very hard to get me to listen and learn, she also is part of a small group of people who actually get my humor and who appreciate my wit, even when it is not always appropriate. She herself is a devoted writer and she has authored many columns for newspapers in our little part of Georgia, columns that I always looked forward to when the local paper came out each week. She wrote about her family and her two sons as they grew up and I remember thinking how much they must have disliked being the subject of their mother’s writings…..yet now I find myself doing the same thing with my son and other members of my family. I think the reason her writings were so enjoyable to me is because she wrote the way I wanted to write and about things I wanted to write about-everyday things that come up in life and how I see them. She still enjoys writing and when she writes a guest column now and then for the paper, I always enjoy reading it and reaffirming that she has stayed true to her course. She was a great teacher and she is a great friend and mentor in the field of writing.
My worst subject all the way through school was mathematics and I have never minced words about my thoughts on that particular subject; put simply, I hated math. My teachers tried so hard but I could just never unlock the secret to comprehending numbers and how they worked and that secret was sealed in a place so deep within my brain that Dan Brown couldn’t have unlocked it in “The Da Vinci Code”. Carole Lunsford cracked that code and I like to tell people that she unlocked my brain. She was patient and she knew her subject but she underscored her knowledge with humor and wit. She was the only math teacher I ever had that could make me laugh and who actually laughed herself. She brought those three elements into the classroom with her: humor, wit and laughter, yet you found yourself learning from her. She got me through math and I don’t mean just enough to get by either…she made sure you could do the work. She always told me that she would never fail me so long as I gave my best effort and she became one of those few teachers who I found myself in fear of letting down. If she wouldn’t fail me, I wasn’t going to fail her either. I ended up taking about every required math in high school from her and on the one or two I could not get from her, help was always available. One week into college, I dropped my math class on campus and took that class at night because she also taught for the area college and I made sure I took all of my college math from her as long as I could. I remember a poster on her classroom wall that said “Those of you who think you know everything are annoying to those of us who do” and I have no doubt that when it came to math, she did know it all. I owe her more than I could ever say.
Finally, the one and only Nancy Houghtaling, my drama and home room teacher. She helped me to get over stage fright (mostly) and even taught me how to act a bit, or at least how to use some dramatic flair when speaking. Although she was chair of the English department, the stage was where she truly was at home and in those days, the annual senior class play was something the community looked forward to. Her mission in life was to make sure they got their money’s worth of solid entertainment and on that front, she excelled. She had also been there for many years and her place was so secure that both the Principal and the Superintendent usually would give her a wide berth in anything she wanted to do.
During my senior year, I had not signed up for drama again and we were almost to mid-term when one of the principal actors in the play was injured and would be out of school for several weeks. She coerced me into joining the play, even going so far as to pull me out of my class a week before mid-term exams, something that was unheard of and that required superintendent intervention which she did not hesitate to avail herself of. The other thing she did has never been done since and I doubt anyone but Miss Nancy could have ever gotten away with it. During a bitter cold winter morning, the heat in our building had gone completely out and the temperature inside felt like about 45 degrees. She was late for home room, which was unusual for her but finally, she walked into the classroom with a look of utter disgust on her face. Soundly putting her books down on the desk, she turned and faced twenty-five pairs of eyes that all looked curiously at her and she spoke, quietly at first but louder as she went on. She said “I want every one of you to get your books together and anything else you have that is yours and I want you to get up, and walk out that door and go home. When you get to your home and your parents ask you what you are doing home from school so early, I want you to tell them to call Mr. (Superintendent) and for them to tell him that they pay too much in taxes for their children to go to school in a BARN!” With that, she picked up her books and she walked out the door. You could have heard a pin drop at the utter silence in that room.
Did we leave? Some of us certainly did. Did she get in trouble? Not at all, and the heat was fixed very quickly. Miss Nancy cared about her students and she looked after them. She also knew she was retiring at the end of the year so she had the upper hand there as well. Despite that, it was almost worth going to school all those years for a finale’ like that one.
Each one of these special teachers played a huge roll in my education. If we are lucky and we live a long life, the years we spend in school accumulating the knowledge we need to get take us to the finish line is only a small investment on our part but the investment is really made by the teachers who put so much into us. We are the dividends that they receive, not the often-meager salaries they make. Our success is their success and our accomplishments are shared with them as well as with our parents and others who guide us in our early years. They equip us for life beyond school and every person who has accomplished anything in life can usually trace their success back to a teacher. To all teachers, everywhere, thank you.
Addendum: I learned within 24 hours of publishing this article that Mrs. Nancy Houghtaling passed away on July 12th, 2011 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida where she had been retired for many years. Over the past twenty-five years, I had maintained correspondence with her, exchanging Christmas cards, occasional notes and even the birth announcement of my son seven years ago. She always sent handwritten notes in elegant script up until the last few years when it became difficult for her; after that, she sent typewritten notes, most of which I still have. My senior year, which was also her last year teaching, she was awarded the Georgia Teacher of the Year award. I always considered myself fortunate to have had her for a teacher before she retired from her calling and as a friend from then on. She leaves behind a sister, four daughters, five grandchildren, five great-grandchildren and few thousand grateful and appreciative students who are all better for having known her.