Miss Wilma Mae Bucknell of Roosevelt-Lincoln Junior High School in Salina, Kansas. Students viewed her as the school witch, and we feared her as the school's toughest teacher. I entered her classroom in dread and got in trouble the first day--and 40 years later, I remember her as the best, most caring, most demanding teacher I've ever had. In her ninth grade English course, I discovered grammar and literature, both of which I probably couldn't spell at the time. I now teach grammar and literature at a university and wouldn't trade jobs with anyone in the world--and I wish I could tell her how grateful I am.
About two years ago, in the article More Than One Great English Teacher, I invited you to describe that one teacher or professor who has had "an enduring influence on the way you think, work, read, or write."
Not surprisingly, many of the replies came from present-day teachers and writers--most of whom, like Charles, recalled the "toughest" and "most demanding" teacher in their old school.
For those who missed the article, here are some of the original responses, along with a follow-up invitation.
- Dr. May McMillan was in her late 50's when I met her my freshman year at college. She had the reputation of being the "meanest" and the "toughest" of English Professors. . . .
To say that Milton was lost on me would be to undermine the "F" I received from Dr. "Make-my-day" May. The curious part, Dr. McMillan scheduled an appointment with me, one-on-one, to deliver my grade. She said directly and without fanfare, "That is not like you, Frank!" She refused to allow any student to just get-along-the path. She forced her students to choose the path. If satisfaction came from choosing the lazy way, then the student made that choice. She allowed no victims. In the real sense, though, she did take prisoners. She took me and changed me; she changed me into a TEACHER! Without difficulty, the substance of my Philosophy of Teaching is that phrase, "That is not like you!" How precious to be someone who notices potential, who encourages change, who stands on beliefs forged by respect and dignity!
- I cannot remember right now the name of my AP English teacher in high school, a public high school in Scottsdale Arizona. But his sparkling passion for great writing--for clear thinking, vivid description, compelling rhetoric, and sublime story--infected me with the same passion. I have never recovered, and I hope I never do. . . .
He also moved me from consumer to creator, from reader to writer. Even if I never manage to earn a good living from it, it is a source of joy and insight and grace, for me and at least a handful of others.
I am eternally in his debt.
- Mr. Griffiths, a latter years high school teacher, inspired me to think about the structure of writing as a whole from sentence to paragraph to chapter. He was a crusty, Welsh veteran of WWII with a glass eye and one lame arm. I think his experience of checking for urban survivors after blitzes gave him a perspective on what was truly important--focusing in the moment. . . .
Griffiths exposed our small enrichment group to modern smaltzy novels, obscure poetry and above all, analytical appreciation. He inspires me when to write what's true and unexpected.
- My English teacher did not shower us with the classics. Instead, he taught us the value of audience analysis and how to write clear, organized everyday emails, memos, letters, reports, proposals, and recommendations . . . the kinds of writing that a workplace life is made of, and I can't thank him enough. My boss is not going to ask me to analyse a poem or a sonnet; he's going to ask me to contrast PC's vs. Macs.
- Into the buttoned-up, nun-haunted world of Sacred Heart High School, Marietta Grzybowski brought youth, laughter, and passion. She awakened a class of smart, bored girls to beautiful writing in a way no one had done before. When she talked about Shakespeare, every eye followed her as she moved around the room, her instensity and eloquence hypnotizing us. One day the copy machine was broken, and she asked me to transcribe Dylan Thomas's "Poem in October" onto the board. By the time I had finished, my arm was paralyzed, but the poem had flowed down my arm into my soul. I read it often and think of Mrs. G, my first role model at a time when girls had few. Thanks to her, I became an English teacher. I hope I was able to share my own literary passion as generously as she did.
- [W]hen it comes to greatness, Father Tom Hoctor stands alone--imperious, theatrical, insufferably brilliant. In 50 minutes every day he'd take us from the Iliad to Eliot, from Beowulf to Virginia Woolf, along the way name-dropping Shakespeare, McLuhan, Malcolm X, and Bob Dylan. He was thinking out loud--all the time.
I didn't especially like him. I just wanted to be exactly like him.
- My best English teacher was Georgie, an energetic teacher in a small, enriched, alternative public school. I was already a voracious reader but she opened up literary history and tradition to me, introducing us all to Norton's Anthology long before college. One night, we all went to someone's house, brought potluck, lay on the floor in candle light, and went through "Ode to the West Wind," line by line; it was magical. In grade twelve, we voted on a novel to cover and the class actually chose to read Crime and Punishment! She was that motivating.
I'm now a college English instructor and I still use some of the methods, and even the materials, that she used all those years ago.
- A sophomore with no thoughts of the future, on a lazy spring afternoon in English class at an all-men's college, staring out the window and wishing to be elsewhere, I heard my professor, whom I thought rather stuffy, say, "Gentlemen, when I read this next poem aloud I always weep. Think nothing of it."
I jerked around to listen to his undistinguished reading of a Wordsworth sonnet--I don't recall which--while tears trickled down beside his nose. Alexander Cowie, old "C-minus Cowie," crying over a poem.
I was transfixed. How could a measly old poem call forth such apparently pure and powerful emotion?
That was more than 55 years ago. I declared as an English major that spring, went on for MA and PhD, and taught English literature for more than five decades.
I found my answer.
Now it's your turn. Click on "comments" to share your recollections of that one great English teacher who changed your life.