It’s National Teachers’ Week, which provides me an opportunity to write a post I’ve always wanted to write. Many of my teachers have passed away. A few are still alive. Nearly all of them, with very few exceptions, were dedicated, talented, honorable people.
There was, first in my memory, Mrs. Elizabeth Powell, my sixth-grade teacher, who shared with all of us her love of baseball and books like Rascal, by Sterling North, and The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett.
Shortly thereafter, in middle school, came the extraordinary Ora Mae Farris, whose drive and passion for living intelligently has informed nearly everything I’ve done since. It was Mrs. Farris who first put the thought in our minds that we children, humble as we were, could be rich in both mind and body, and that it was perfectly acceptable to dream of being so. She looked like Aunt Jemima, and she whacked one of us in fun one day for daring to say so, but she was wise beyond her years. We were a rambunctious bunch, but Mrs. Farris gave us a lot of latitude because we were talented and we knew how to work: two of us went on to be high school valedictorians; another was a recognized H.I.SD. graduate from his high school; yet another would have been an excellent graphic artist, had he lived. I don’t know if any of us gave any thought to Mrs. Farris being a black woman; she was just Mrs. Farris, and we loved her and respected her. Yet, looking back, I’d give a great deal to know what else was on her mind in 1969, 1970, and 1971. It was through her that I met other black scholars and teachers: in eighth grade, Mr. O.H. Crider, who taught chemistry in a way that was both commonsensical and fun. In ninth grade, I fell into the clutches of Mrs. Margaret Jefferson–a streetwise woman who could’ve held her own with the rappers in Brooklyn as easily as she did with the kids in the Heights. Margaret Jefferson didn’t think a whole lot of my adolescent dental habits, but she recognized my love of reading and turned me loose on A Tale of Two Cities and Native Son because she knew I could handle them. I read a great deal in those years–Lawrence Durrell; the Supreme Court justice William O. Douglas, who penned a harrowing account of climbing Kloochman Peak in Washington state with a friend; and a whole host of others, some of whom have been chronicled here in these pages.
The experience I had with Mrs. Farris and Margaret Jefferson prepared me for Mrs. Nan Hawes in high school at Sharpstown. Mrs. Hawes was a retired Registered Technician, similar to an R.N. in medicine, but one with more complex training. She was a pleasant, highly-engaging, exceptionally well organized woman. I did not find out until much later that she was suffering from high blood pressure, perhaps because of her prior career as a nurse, and almost-certainly because of her responsibility to shepherd so many of her home room students through their high school careers. She died on the operating table a few years after I graduated. Her influence upon me and the direction of my life was so profound that it made my sweet mother jealous. That could not be helped. It is our teachers–in school and elsewhere–who take us out of the provincialism of our homes and the narrowness of our thoughts. It is they who teach us that life and the experience of living it cannot really be reduced to the comforting simplicities of tradition and religion, no matter how much we want them to be or think that they can be. Mrs. Hawes did that for me, and she did so by treating me as the adult I wished to be. She confided to me her doubts and fears about my classmates, and she trusted in the help I was able to give her in her daily tasks. I wept when she died, just as I did when I received the obituary of Mrs. Farris in the mail a few years later.
Because of Mrs. Hawes, high school was fun. There was my biology teacher, Mr. Robert Medlin, a tall, lanky man with no taste buds. His teaching was so engrossing at times that he distracted me from what I really needed to do in that class–get next to the beautiful, dark-haired Nancy Hobbs and find out all I could about her. My graded notes for that class were so copious that Mr. Medlin’s grader scribbled on one returned set, “Writin’ a book?” I guess I was, because I learned as much about writing there as anywhere else. I didn’t lament the loss of Ms. Hobbs too long, either, because there was the Homecoming Queen of my graduating class, Sherry Fisher, to sit next to in Mrs. Ivonel Jackson’s twelfth-grade English class. Lord, she was beautiful. I have heard that she’s now fat and dumpy. But even if that’s true, who am I to complain? I’ve lost the rippling muscles I had when I was twenty-eight, too.
Hamlet was in the matronly Mrs. Jackson’s class; so was James Baldwin, which must have taken an effort of the will on Mrs. Jackson’s part because, as she whispered to me one day, “He’s so dirty.” (He’s not really; but one must make allowances for tastes and mores.) We read Phillip Roth and John Updike and Shirley Jackson. And we had a little volume–I think it was called “Practical English Handbook”–that set out basic rules of grammar and composition, and convinced me, by its easy charm and snappy style, that the business of writing was something that I could do. The book also had well-chosen lists of further reading that a fellow my age could sink his teeth into, so I did.
I did even more reading in Betty Ruppert’s History class. We learned facts out of a textbook, but for the meaning of those facts, we read Richard Hofstader’s The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It, and a two-volume selection of essays about the writing of history (historiography) that I’ve always referred to simply as “Grob & Billias” after the two gentlemen who edited the volumes. You can still find it on Amazon. We also had Mrs. Ruppert, there, of course, a tiny, bouncy, squeaky-voiced champion of American liberalism. We argued and fought and laughed with each other, and had a marvelous time sharpening our wits and our brains. You would also understand, I believe, the living reality of what we call history once you learned, as we did, that she and her own high school classmates, during their own senior year, held hands and wept during their prom when news was brought to them of the fall of France to the Nazis in June of 1940. None of those students knew how their futures were going to unfold, but they all knew, in a terrifying way, what the future was going to be.
In the most profound sense, I owe these men and women my life. They set me on a good path, a path from which I’ve sometimes strayed by my own choice and from which life itself has forced me to stray. I have not yet accomplished the promise of my early years, but I will. The books to be written under my name in the years to come are in payment of the debt I owe to all of them. And whatever good I was able to do in the teaching of my own students came out of the lessons I learned from them, and I will take that knowledge to my grave as a comfort if–God forbid–the whole of my life collapses and I accomplish nothing in the years I have left. What they gave to me–the life of the mind–was a gift upon which a price cannot be put. Only now, years after the fact, am I coming to understand how inexhaustible that gift is, and how well it will sustain me in the years to come.