Tuesday, May 31, 2011

In Memoriam

My beloved high school English teacher passed away last week.  I had heard a rumor a couple of years ago that she was sick, but when I never heard anything else, I assumed everything was ok.  I had been thinking about her recently.  As I was finishing up my PhD, I was making plans to write letters to all of my English teachers, thanking them for helping me along the way.  She was at the top of the list.  Last Saturday, I learned that she wasn't doing well, but I still thought I had more time.  Thursday, I woke up early for some reason, drafting the letter I wanted to write to her in my head.  I learned later that she had died that morning.

She was, undoubtedly, the most amazing teacher ever.  I took senior English--Brit Lit--from her, and I believe that my decision to become a Victorianist can be traced to her influence.  She had the reputation of being very challenging.  Kids who had taken honors classes throughout high school, dropped out of the advanced program and took standard English because they were afraid of her class.  And she was tough.  We came in the first day of class to find a stack of about five books on our desks.  We read Beowulf, and Othello, and King Lear, and Hamlet.  We read Wuthering Heights, Tess of the D'Urbervilles, and A Tale of Two Cities.  We read The Heart of Darkness.  I also took her AP English Lit. class where we read Jude the Obscure (well, I didn't read it: I had learned my lesson about Hardy with Tess)  We read The Bridge on the Drina, a challenging contemporary novel about Serbia.  And, as a special favor, because she wouldn't do it with just anyone, she took us sailing on the Pequod: Moby Dick was her personal favorite novel.  We read so much poetry--poems that are now my favorites, I read first in her class, and for many of them, it is her voice that I hear when I read them.  Browning's "My Last Duchess", Shelley's "Ozymandias".  We read Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" out loud in class every day for at least a week.  I don't know if we ever discussed it--I think we may have just let the words wash over us.

She gave kooky, but challenging assignments.  We made mobiles with symbols from King Lear.  We made a model reproduction of the house in Wuthering Heights.  My favorite was when we went to the art room (she was bosom buddies with the art teacher), and made something from clay to represent an idea from The Heart of Darkness.  I made two figures--Kurtz's fiancee, dressed in Victorian mourning, and the native woman, dressed in a tribal costume.  After the figures were fired, I tied them, back to back with a bit of twine.  How could this not have been a precursor to my dissertation work--images of femininity, gender binaries, dress, for goodness sake?

She made us feel special.  When I went home to visit my parents this weekend, I unlocked a trunk in my old bedroom that stores my "treasures."  I found the cigar box that she brought in for us to decorate.  Inside, among other paraphernalia of my teen years, were a sea-shell she had brought--she loved the beach (she had a lounge chair and inflatable palm trees in the back of her classroom) and brought her students smooth, heavy shells, to serve as worry-stones.  I carried mine in my pocket for years in college.  I found a post-card she had written me on spring break, writing about hearing Verdi's Othello, and how much she enjoyed having me in her class.  I found the small, framed quotation that she gave me as a graduation present: "Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things."  "This made me think of you, Stephanie," she said, "because it is what you do."  I don't know if that is accurate, but it made me want to be someone who does it.  The frame came with me to college.  It is what I brought into my Freshman Experience class when we were asked to bring in something meaningful to us.

My students don't know it, but they are learning from my beloved teacher.  Every semester, from the readings, to the ideas, to the assignments, I am drawing on what I learned from her.  It seems impossible that she's not here.  That she's not growing her orchids, reading on a beach, or enlivening another generation of students.  Someday, I hope to see her in heaven; and I expect that we will have more than enough time to talk about every book we have read since we saw each other last.

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