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More Than One Great English Teacher

Remembering Teachers Who Changed Our Lives

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"In my life I have met five great presidents but only one great English teacher."

That's what John Steinbeck said when he turned down an invitation to the White House so that he could attend a dinner honoring his high school English teacher.

Most of us, I'm guessing, can recall at least one great English teacher--someone who challenged us, motivated us, and deepened our appreciation and understanding of language and literature.

While thinking about the most influential English teacher in your life, consider the recollections of these 10 modern authors.

  • Douglas Adams (author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) on Frank Halford
    He once gave me 10 out of 10 for a story, which was the only time he did throughout his long school career. And even now, when I have a dark night of the soul as a writer and think that I can't do this anymore, the thing that I reach for is not the fact that I have had best-sellers or huge advances. It is the fact that Frank Halford once gave me 10 out of 10, and at some fundamental level I must be able to do it.
    (Quoted by Nicholas Wroe, "Planet of the Japes." The Guardian, June 3, 2000)

  • Jean Christopher Spaugh (teacher and novelist) on Miss Nealy Beatty
    Miss Nealy Beatty was the English teacher. She was about our parents’ age and was very cool, because she sat on the edge of her desk and drank Cokes in class. Miss Beatty was probably the best English teacher who ever lived, and everybody knew it. She used her considerable influence to keep her classes small. We had discussion groups and wrote essays every week, read them aloud if they were good enough, and discussed them. Our textbooks included the New York Times and the Atlantic Monthly.

    Miss Beatty insisted on excellence. She said we were the best and the brightest. . . . Miss Beatty kept us to a relentlessly high standard, assumed we would always do our best--assumed we were, if not brilliant, at least well educated. And so we were.
    (Jean Christopher Spaugh, foreword to the novel Something Blue. John F. Blair, 1997)

  • Nikki Giovanni (poet and distinguished professor of English at Virginia Tech) on Miss Delaney
    The reason Miss Delaney was my favorite teacher, not just my favorite English teacher, is that she would let me read any book I wanted and would allow me to report on it.
    (Nikki Giovanni, "In Praise of a Teacher," in Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea: Poems and Not Quite Poems. William Morrow, 2002)

  • Jesse Stuart (novelist, essayist, and short-story writer) on Mrs. R. E. Hatton
    In high school we had to write and read aloud a theme a week. I had a wonderful English teacher, Mrs. R. E. Hatton, trained in the University of Missouri College of Journalism. She told us to write our themes on subjects we knew the most about. She became one of my favorite teachers of a lifetime. . . .

    Two of the themes I wrote for Mrs. Hatton have been published. "Nest Egg" was published in the Atlantic Monthly and has been reprinted in college and high school textbooks around the world. I wrote it when I was sixteen years old.
    (Jesse Stuart, My World. University Press of Kentucky, 1975)

  • J. K. Rowling (author of the Harry Potter books) on Miss Shepherd
    I quite liked secondary school, but I was particularly influenced by my English teacher, Miss [Lucy] Shepherd. She was strict, and could be quite caustic, but she was very conscientious. I really respected her because she was a teacher who was passionate about teaching us. She was an introduction to a different kind of woman, I suppose. She was a feminist, and clever. She had this incredibly no-nonsense approach. . . . Miss Shepherd was very hot on structure and refused to allow us to be the least bit sloppy. Even though I read a great deal, it was very good to be shown exactly what gave writing structure and pace. I learned such a lot from her and we're still in touch. She was the only teacher I ever confided in. She inspired trust.
    (Quoted by Lindsey Fraser in Conversations with J. K. Rowling. Scholastic Books, 2001)

  • Willie Morris (author and editor) on Mrs. Omie Parker
    I had a great high school English teacher, Mrs. Omie Parker. . . . She was a marvelous high school English teacher, and a genuine taskmaster who opened up to me the whole world of language and its possibilities. She got us reading good books, literature, and poetry.
    (Willie Morris in an interview with John Griffin Jones, from Mississippi Writers Talking II. University Press of Mississippi, 1983)

  • Robert W. Merry (author and publisher) on Mr. Olson
    Mr. Olson. He was my social studies and English teacher in the seventh and eighth grades. He was a man who was passionate about learning. He would play classical music and make us talk about it. He would lead us in endless discussions about poetry. He was a paragon of the virtues of learning. He towered over my life, and he does even now.
    (Quoted by David M. Shribman in I Remember My Teacher: 365 Reminiscences of the Teachers Who Changed Our Lives. Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2001)

  • bell hooks (author and social activist) on a "white and middle-aged" woman
    My favorite English teacher, white and middle-aged, was seen as a "nigger lover" because she repudiated the racism and white supremacy of the world around us, because she wanted her classroom to be a place where black students could learn with as much passion and zeal as white students. . . . I remember her warmth, her daring, her will to challenge. I remember that she cared for black students, affirming our wholeness and the rightness of our being. And most importantly, she did not shame us.
    (bell hooks, Teaching Critical Thinking: Practical Wisdom. Routledge, 2009)

  • Samuel R. Delany (novelist and professor of English at Temple University) on Mrs. T
    In English that term we had read the Iliad and the Odyssey, as well as a good handful of traditional myths--most of which I was familiar with from My Book/House. We even tackled one or two Greek plays in translation; and over one English period, Mrs. T, my favorite English teacher from my whole elementary school days, explained to us the etymology of "calligraphy," "geology," "optical," "palindrome," "obscene," and "poet."
    (Samuel R. Delany, "Shadows," in Longer Views: Extended Essays. Wesleyan University Press, 1996)

  • Philip Levine (distinguished poet in residence at New York University) on Mrs. Paperno
    [O]n a late morning I shall never forget, my wonderful English teacher, Mrs. Paperno--a saucy little woman with a will of steel and an enormous heart--read to the class the poem "Arms and the Boy," by Wilfred Owen. This was 1945, the war was still raging in Europe and Asia and on the Pacific Islands, and I was approaching draft age. . . .

    That day, Mrs. Paperno must have sensed how deeply I was affected by Owen's poem, for after class she offered to lend me the book--if I read it with white gloves on. I took her up on her offer and discovered that the fears I had of dying for some abstract cause--like democracy or patriotism or an end to the wars to come--and the horror I felt at the thought of killing for any reason, I shared with this young Englishman.
    (Philip Levine in First Loves: Poets Introduce the Essential Poems That Captivated and Inspired Them, edited by Carmela Ciuraru. Scribner, 2000)

Now it's your turn to tell us about one great English teacher from your days in school or college. Not necessarily the most learned scholar or the most lovable character, but the one teacher who has had an enduring influence on the way you think, work, read, or write. To share your recollections, visit Remembering English Teachers Who Changed Our Lives and click on "comments."

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