One Good Teacher

When I was a sophomore in high school–I attended St. Vincent’s Academy, an all-girl Catholic school in Savannah that’s still there today–I grew about ten inches that year.

220px-AbsalomAbsalomNot literally, but it felt that stupendous. See, I had a teacher, Sister Michael Mary, who blew open my mind with books like All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren and William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!

William Faulkner. Absalom, Absalom! It was the tenth grade, y’all, and we were a pretty sheltered group of girls back then. Not to mention that Sister Michael Mary had to explain nearly every page to us. That entire year, we read brain-busting novel after novel, each one painstakingly explained to us by this nun who had such a passion for literature. It was so hard and frustrating and confusing and yet, it was exhilarating, too.

Years later, lots of years later, I saw Sister Michael Mary at my Tybee Island church, but we recognized each other immediately and spoke of high school days. I told her what I most remembered was Faulkner and Absalom, Absalom! and she burst into laughter. What was she thinking, she said, having us read Faulkner?! She was new to teaching, she said, and had a lot to learn about tenth grade English classes. I said how much I’d loved her class and all those novels.

What I didn’t say–and wished that I had–was that she made a difference in my life. That she broadened my mind and introduced ideas and themes that were completely new to me. That she challenged me, challenged all of us to think of a world beyond our 15-year-old boundaries. Even if she had to explain every single page to us.

Though even with all that explaining, she managed to make me, and I suspect most of us in that class, feel capable and smart and up to the challenge of grasping most of what these literary giants had written so eloquently. And when I moved on, I wasn’t the same girl. I was someone who believed she was more than she’d dreamed.

The best teachers are like that, I think. It’s not so much the facts or figures you learn–honestly, I remember very few of the details of Absalom, Absalom! –it’s learning that you can do more, think more, be more than you ever imagined. A good teacher’s influence far surpasses the walls of any classroom ….

You know what? I’m about to get myself choked up here. So I will just say that I shared another teacher’s influence over at The Muffin today in Here’s to You, Mrs. Robeson and I hope you have time to read another personal story. It’s more about teaching, not so much about writing. But it did involve a letter so I think that counts. And I hope you had or have a teacher that you can count as a blessing in your life.

Everyone needs at least one good teacher.

A Treasure (Or Two) at Tybee

Mom and Dad weddingSo I spent yet another week cleaning up at my parents’ house at the beach, and oh my goodness, what treasures I found! Not like a Picasso in the bottom of a dirty, rag-filled box, but treasures just the same.

I emptied the drawers in my mother’s secretary and found a trove of college memorabilia. Mom often spoke about her Vanderbilt days but she’d graduated from a junior college in Savannah before Vanderbilt. I found her yearbooks–she’d been the editor of her college newspaper (The editor? Did I know this? Did she like to write as much as I do?), the president of a foreign relations club (What? Are we talking about my mom? The woman who’d run if someone came to the door?) and one of the outstanding students of her class–and I found her graduation program, too. She’d been the valedictorian.

The valedictorian, too?! All I can say is, you think you know someone. (Though to be honest, we always knew Mom was smart. Dad always said he married the smartest girl in Savannah. But to be perfectly honest, we thought Dad was exaggerating. Apparently, we thought wrong.) It was awfully nice to come across these treasures about Mom after all these years. (And maybe I should follow the writing advice she threw out there, back in the day when I thought I knew better than she did. Sheesh, is my face red.)

And then I came across something my dad had typed–and saved for all these years. I was stunned when I read the writing on the outside of the yellowed page in my Dad’s beautiful script, “William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech.”

Not because my dad wouldn’t know Faulkner. My dad was a physicist, chemist, and college professor but he read a couple books a week for as long as I can remember. Still, he read mysteries, thrillers…he wasn’t exactly literary.  Or philosophical.

But maybe I was wrong about him, too. Here is the section of the speech he meticulously copied:

I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking.

I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.

I’d never read William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize speech (It’s very short and you can read it in its entirety here.) and I have to say, I just about choked up when I came to that part about the writer’s duty: It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past.

I wish I could talk to Dad about this treasure. But even so, I’m glad he found a way to share it with me. And of course, typical of Dad, teach me one last lesson.