As the school year comes to a close, I think of Mabel Staats. Though short in stature, she was the most intimidating English teacher I ever met. I was never in her class, but she had a profound effect on my life.
One day, outside study hall in Miami Senior High School, where many underachievers, including myself, spent lots of time, she approached me and said in an embarrassingly loud voice, "Henry, you are a writer!" I was mortified. To be approached outside the classroom by a teacher was bad enough, but to be told that you had potential in something as cerebral as writing, risked being labeled an egghead.
I was puzzled. How did she know I had writing potential? I hated writing. I was a left-handed writer in an era of BIC ballpoints and fountain pens that smeared every time my hand passed over what I had just written. Moreover, writing was painful. I wrote with my hand in a contorted position above the line, causing severe pain after only a few minutes and my mind raced ahead of my hand, causing me to mis-spell words and scratch them out, leaving a smudged, blotted paper with crossed out words and writing that meandered up and down rather than progressing across the page in a straight line.
To put it kindly, my penmanship was poor, even though Miss Stokes, my fourth grade teacher, kept me in the classroom during numerous recesses, when I would dutifully try to emulate the pages in the Palmer Method penmanship booklets, with their uniform circles and vertical strokes. Then, in tenth grade, I took a one-semester personal typing class, and all of a sudden penmanship had nothing to do with writing.
I practiced diligently, typing "a s d f" and "j k l ;" for hours on my mother's old Smith Corona portable typewriter until I became a proficient. The practice paid off when I was able to type all my college papers, with footnotes, rather than paying someone else one dollar per page, which was hard to come by in those years. Even though I have used a computer keyboard for almost 30 years, I still pound the keys hard enough to make a typed impression through three sheets of paper, with carbons.
Years later, while working at Bell Labs, I learned to use a crude computer program called ED, on the UNIX operating system, which allowed me to "cut and paste", "substitute" and run a spell check on what I had written. This crude system made endless editing and refinement possible, allowing me to improve my writing by another order of magnitude.
For the past 40 or so years, I have earned a living writing for others and now I am writing this column under my own name. As I reflect on Mrs. Staats' observation a half-century later, I know now that she knew what she was talking about, but I still don't know how she knew. Alas, it is too late to solve the mystery or acknowledge her. She died in 1994.
There are other teachers I remember when I think about my school years. Miss Stokes, the fourth grade teacher, who taught me I could memorize long lists of things and gave me confidence in my intellect. During the school year, she married Mr. Rinaldi, the nastiest phys. ed. teacher in Flagami Elementary school.
Our newly acquired knowledge of reproductive anatomy made our ten-year-old minds reel at the thought of what big, mean Mr. Rinaldi would do to our beloved, beautiful Miss Stokes once they were wed, and we knew they were so different that their marriage was a mistake. The following September, the first of our misgivings was proven correct when Miss Stokes (now Mrs. Rinaldi) returned to school pregnant. The next year, they were divorced and Mrs. Rinaldi became Miss Stokes again, proving we were right about the incompatibility of the two. I adored Miss Stokes. She nurtured and taught me much, but I never had the maturity and wisdom to thank her.
I remember Mr. Nichols, the fifth-grade teacher who allowed me to spend much of the school year reading a set of historical biographies on the back shelf of our little classroom. And I remember Mr. Taft, who taught about the international dynamics of the Middle East. I never thanked them for instilling in me a passion for history and current events.
In West Miami Junior High, Miss O'Donnell and Mrs. Veitch, pampered me like a pet puppy and giggled at every stupid joke I made, and of course Don Terry, the drama teacher who called me Henry Hambone for my love of stealing attention on stage but who made me love theater. I never thanked them.
From high school I remember Mr. Zimmerman. He made 10th grade biology exciting and fanned my interest in science. Bert Moss made learning vocabulary fun. Sylvia Furlong, our drill sergeant of a drama teacher, kept me, and many other underperformers in school by interesting us in theater. Mrs. Sparrenberger was an old-school southern lady, who freely shared her racist opinions, which made my blood boil, but in the process, rather than converting me to her way of thinking. She strengthened my determination to speak out against such views. I never thanked them.
They are all gone now, these teachers, and others, whose names I can't recall. Outside of my family, they were the most influential people in my young life. They live in my mind as young, active and committed teachers, who spent their careers with an oblivious young person. I am indebted to them for my life.
So, if your school years are recent enough that teachers who made a difference in your life are still alive, I encourage you to let them know. Send a card, make a phone call or drop by your old school to see if they are still there or if anyone knows where they are now, and contact them. It surely will make a difference in their lives and it will make a difference in yours.
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