This is Teacher Appreciation Week, so I’m doing exactly that — remembering educators who enlightened and inspired me.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about the late Melva Jean Watson, second-grade teacher at Washington Elementary, who read aloud from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books. Studies prove the benefits of reading to children, and I benefited both from the content of those books and the time spent listening to a capable reader weave words into a literary web.
Reading aloud was a big part of Judy Vien’s classroom circa 1980 at Marlington Middle School. One book in particular cast a potent spell: Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” read by Mrs. Vien in her soft Southern accent, so similar to how I imagined Scout, Atticus, Jem and Dill would sound.
I respected her for sharing a book that some find controversial, especially for sixth-grade students, and for not sugarcoating the expletives. Instead, she explained the racial overtones of the times; that mistreating people because of skin color, education or economic attainment is wrong; and that we were mature enough to know that saying certain words was not the same as endorsing them.
A few years later, Andrea Ogline and Nancy Schwan — my freshman and sophomore English teachers, respectively, at Marlington High School — encouraged my love of writing, each in her own way.
Mrs. Ogline, poor thing, waded through page after page of my journal entries, filled with dreary imitations of stories by Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard and gallons of imaginary blood. Yet she was always enthusiastic in her comments, even when she would have preferred a nice Bronte pastiche to another psychopathic killer inspired by my fetish for horror films.
Mrs. Schwan submitted one of my stories to a regional contest. It didn’t win, but for the first time I thought about making a living with words and saw how revision improved my writing. She took the work so seriously that she once called me at home to address a plot flaw, just like a real editor. I am thankful for that, and how she never assumed that because my character committed suicide, the story was a cry for help. (It wasn’t.)
At Mount Union College, David Ragosin and John Bienz left their marks. The former introduced me to William Zinsser’s “On Writing Well,” one of a handful of books I regularly return to for inspiration, and he once told me I had the makings of a good college professor. My career didn’t go in that direction, but the words did — and do — mean a lot.
Dr. Bienz had such a quiet and unprepossessing manner that he put students, many of whom were secretly terrified of literature at the collegiate level, at ease. While he delivered effective lectures, he was a master of eliciting responses, both in class and on the printed page. I especially remember his Shakespeare class, where instead of a final paper, we performed “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” for elementary students. I was the fairy Puck, likely because of my long hair and effeminate build. (Both are victims of my forties.)
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, I flattered the heck out of Dr. Bienz my first few years as a teacher, modeling my delivery on his. These days, I’ve found my own voice, but am still largely influenced by his technique.
Like most people, I am the sum total of the efforts of dozens of professionals, from Ms. Meese, the kindergarten teacher who introduced me to the Letter People, through Penny Arnold, an Ashland University professor who made me re-examine my grading methods as a practicing educator.
Even teachers whose subjects aren’t of great interest or whose styles are not inspirational make an impression. When they are passionate about their subjects, it leaves a mark. When they are not, that too speaks volumes.
If our lives are books, teachers occupy a large chunk of the acknowledgments, along with the standard tagline that while they provide a wealth of insight and information, we ourselves are responsible for any errors in fact.
“I am a part of all that I have met,” says Ulysses in Tennyson’s poem of the same name. This is especially true of teachers, whose impact lasts far beyond the final school bell and, indeed, tolls throughout our lives.
@cschillig on Twitter
Originally published May 9, 2013, in The Alliance Review.