Thank you, wherever you are. I hope you are in a place where the very best of you go. You are certainly in my heart and my mind.
Ruth Teague was a teacher, specifically an English teacher at my high school, one of three that I had during the early 1960’s. The others were Mrs. Gladys Loomis, known as “happy bottom” in our house and Mrs. Francis, “Frankie” Campbell. “Happy bottom” was one of my dad’s little jokes as Vard and Gladys were among my parents closest friends. This was a happy circumstance for me because my mom could pull a string or two as I was chronically late with my writing. I would and did, jump from my fathers pickup and race to Mrs Loomis’s kitchen door, prop my missing report against it and race back, hoping to escape detection, hoping to avoid any kind of embarrassment, if possible. Didn’t work though, as she would bring it up occasionally over the next fifty years. Always with a laugh though.
I had Mrs Teague three times, once for english and twice for Journalism. My most important memories of her was the journalism class. We published the school newspaper, known at the time as the Hi-Chatter. We studied the art of communication through the written word. She taught all the usual stuff,of course, but thats not why I remember her. It was how she related to her students and particularly to me.
As a high school kid I was just so so as an academic. A college prep guy who worked just hard enough to get by with B’s and C’s. As with most kids I was unable to see the my future as an adult. Not uncommon, of course, but one of the most difficult things to relate to, young people who see the future as perhaps a dream of someday. Mrs. Teague took the time to try and relate in a way I could understand, what life would be like after high school. It didn’t go exactly as planned. Ending up a high school teacher myself was not something I would have imagined.
In the 1960’s, high school was as stratified as igneous rock, very hard, divided into distinct layers and easily identified by its structure. Freshman, trying to maintain as low a profile as humanly possible, sophomores who might have their heads just above the surface of social order, juniors as the lady in waiting, and seniors, cocks of the walk. The students lived in this well ordered world but never quite gave credit to the teachers who made it so. Big man on campus Terry might by the king athlete, or Fred, the academic wonder but they had no vote. Teachers ruled. The teachers word was law and if you didn’t do what you were told you might have to go to the office to see the principle. That, was not to be contemplated with any degree of comfort. Mr. Douglas Hitchen was the dean of boys my senior year and nothing, and I mean nothing got by him. If you saw him coming, have your pass ready or else. Don’t try to grow a mustache, it got you a trip to his office. Senior boys once packed the senior bathroom in a protest over some minor issue and Mr Hitchen just stuck his head in the door, said not a word and we immediately vacated the premises with just a whimper. Tough guys, we were.
Someone I knew chalked a bad word on Mr Wells Smiths green board and then quickly wiped it off, when the teacher walked in, saw the shadow of the four letters, and immediately knew who the culprit was and sent him away for punishment. Like I said, they were in charge. We didn’t have conversations about divers things with them. They were adults, we were not. Respect was the order of the day. Today, even if you saw him do it, you’d still need forensic evidence to prove it because the kid would just say you were lying and it would be his word against yours. Case closed.
Mrs Loomis once said to me as I contemplated an english essay, “Mr Shannon, the answers are NOT on the ceiling.” I wished they were, but I didn’t look at the ceiling again. “They are not on Miss Nelson’s knees either.” No more knees.
Their pictures in my yearbook make them look very severe, but they weren’t really. As with all great teachers they cared for their students, well, most of them anyway. I’m sure they recognized those kids with whom they were simpatico.
Those three women are the reason I can put words in the proper order, organize a thought and possibly put the comma where it belongs. Couldn’t teach me how to diagram though, that, thankfully, is a torture device that has disappeared from academics. Mrs Teague sat me down once and said that the reason I could get away with being lazy, was that I read so much that I instinctively knew what went where. She gave me two pieces of advice. The first was to make the writing personal. As a high school sportswriter and a stringer for the old Herald Recorder that wasn’t really my job, to be personal, I was just supposed to interview a player and report the scores. Pretty dull stuff. In the movie Bull Durham Crash Davis gives Ebby LaLoosh some helpful advice on how to talk to sportswriters. The advice, of course, is to only talk in cliches, something you can see on ESPN every day. Honestly, not very interesting stuff. She said, “Make a connection between the reader and the material.” I’m seventeen, I think, this might just be rocket science and I’m no scientist. She also said, “People read quietly, they don’t read aloud. You must provide them with the material to build a world in their heads.” This of course was the norm in 1963, though reading quietly, as a habit was only a couple of centuries old. She explained this by saying that in the past, the written word was, not surprisingly, meant to be read aloud, which is why readings from the King James bible sound so much better pronounced from the pulpit.
While I’m thinking this, she gives me the second bit, “Carry a notebook and use it.” I still do. Many, many notebooks. Some I have, some are lost. A museum of them, written on every available surface, loose leaf , ring, padded, perfect, spiral, comb, sewn, clasp, disc, and pressured. Written in pencil, pen, marker, sometimes a piece of writing stapled in, little drawings, cartoons or just a word. Lists of books to read or books read, even, in this modern day, discs and thumb drives; though they are not remotely as satisfying as words on paper. Incomprehensible they are to you, dear reader, but they follow me like the cloud of dust around Pig Pen.
Some entries were made for reasons I no longer remember. Some are just plain odd, such as the two small newspaper clipping from 1975 that describe the voyage of the Can Tiki. A sailing raft made of empty beer cans or “Tinnies” as the Aussies would say, which two blokes sailed from Darwin to Singapore. I might use it someday, maybe.
My english teachers stressed the importance of reading and research. Mrs Teague would say, “Put something personal in your articles. People want to know the personalities not just the score. Personality endures, score is gone tomorrow.”
Though I knew them all as an adult person; saw them occasionally over the next 40 years, it’s what they said in a few short hours in a high school classroom that still counts. I tried to remember that effect when I became a high school teacher myself. Just a little bit of personal interest in a young persons life can cast a long shadow.