Ellen Stuttle Posted April 17, 2006 Share Posted April 17, 2006 Phil asked for "a little bit of detail" about what was special about a high school teacher I mentioned.Phil,I couldn't find on a quick search the tribute I wrote several years ago to Libby (Emily Elizabeth Rice, my beloved high school "Literature and English" teacher who became a treasured personal friend), so I'll have to "wing it." (Taking a month's break from elist participation to get my personal files organized would be a good idea.)To begin with, there was the way she was, the impression she made, her "aura," if you will. She was a Someone whom students noticed long before they had her class; she was noticed in the halls, because of how she looked.She was tall, erect, almost matronly in figure, but regal: "regal," as in, "with the bearing of royalty." She was self-possessed, self-assured in the style of one so confident of her standing as to be un-selfconscious, entirely natural, in her expectation of respect. She dressed in a particular style. She always wore a suit (of lighter-weight fabric in the summer months) made of a Scots-clan pattern -- a genuine clan pattern; she knew the historic details of each tartan type. Plus a blouse with a lace sort of kneckline, and usually some sort of brooch pin which looked (and was) antique. Her hair was long and braided in a circlet round her head. She looked like a person who belonged in a Victorian mansion sort of setting.Her reputation, as well as her appearance, was well known before a student began to take a class with her. She only taught Juniors and Seniors. All the best students, and as many of the not-quite-best students as could be fit in, knew from their first year at Peoria High that a class with Miss Rice would be their "fate" in one of their last two years before they graduated. (I insisted on having this fate for both those years.)Students entertained romantic stories about her, the boys as well as the girls: She'd been the tragic heroine of a dramatic relationship, it was said; she'd been disappointed in her lover; her sister had stolen him; etc. (There was a factual basis to these stories, but not one involving a sister -- she'd been an only child.)Students also told non-romantic stories about how demanding a teacher she was. These stories were entirely accurate. To have a class under her tutelage was to be in training to a disciplinarian content with nothing less than excellence in the use of language.Her classroom was a place where one might feel a holy rite was to be enacted: It matched her appearance. The school had been built when classrooms had lofty ceilings, and large chalk-writing blackboards. Above the blackboard behind her desk, and all round the other two walls of the room (the fourth side had windows) were pictures and maps of English literary history. The room had a kind of "tabernacle" feeling. Literature was important within that space.Students, as I've indicated, often looked forward with a sense of fear to the time when they would have her class. But, then, in years after graduating from high school, they would write letters along the lines: "I dreaded your course, but now that I'm [a college student, working in business, raising children and helping with their assignments], I'm so grateful. You taught me to write, and I now understand how important a lesson yours was."How did she go about her lesson? From the beginning up, in the mechanics of writing. She would start with the details of what a sentence is, while at the same time encouraging an interest in words, in their meanings. We'd be given a list of, say, 10 words. We were to write sentences using these. First the sentences would be basic, one-clause constructions. Then compound ("and," "but," "or" conjunctions), then complex (dependent clauses), then paragraphs, then short essays. Meanwhile, we would have "synonyms" played in class. A word would be given: what was a one-word synonym? (This was such fun the way she did it, students would start spending time on their own exploring a thesaurus so as better to play the game.)And we would read works of literature, not being assigned them just as something to go off and read, but as works which would be talked about in class, connecting them to life experiences. I recall one occasion -- this was my senior year -- when the class was on the split-lunchhour schedule. That meant that it was "fourth" period, when some classes were split with a half hour before lunch, then lunch, then a half hour after lunch. Some of the guys in the class were on the football team: they weren't the sort to want to do without food. But the whole class (no one was required to stay; anyone would have been permitted to leave) had become so intensely involved in arguing about Macbeth's motives, we all skipped lunch. This was the kind of interest she could arouse.It was like seeking the Holy Grail for me, being in her class. Although I'm sure that I felt this sense of the quest more than did all of her students, she elicited, even in those who started by not wanting to be there, an ultimate desire to learn, a willingness to try to write as well as they could.Ellen___ Link to comment Share on other sites More sharing options...
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