In most of the Commonwealth nations November 11 is Remembrance Day, a holiday celebrated since the end of World War I. Much like our Memorial Day, this day is set aside to remember those men and women who died in military service to their countries. The expression we often use in our Memorial Day is that we remember those who “gave their lives for their country.”
I am declaring for myself, today as another remembrance day, a day when I remember wonderful teachers who are no longer with us. In a way very different from military service members, these teachers gave their lives for their country. They could have made more money and found more status in other occupations, but they chose to teach. Certainly they did this because they loved the work and because they were committed to helping young people.
In the words of the Nora Jones song American Anthem, these people too can say, “America, I gave my best to you.” And so I remember…
Miss Fickett, my 7th grade English teacher. Like all superb teachers, she had high expectations for all of her students. While she was an imposing figure, she clearly cared deeply about our learning. She taught us to diagram English sentences, which was the first time I had an inkling of the logic in the English language. She would cringe today to see the death of the adverb, particularly in advertising, where we are urged to “eat healthy” or “shop local.” These advertisements would have earned a (sic) from Miss Fickett.
Mr. Vickery, was my high school senior year English teacher. A short, disheveled, and colorful character, at the time I did not fully understand what a treasure he was. He pushed a bunch of surly 17 year olds to see the breadth of English writing and to appreciate the hard work it takes to write well. His legacy lives on in special collections at UMaine’s Fogler Library where the Vickery collection of Maine books reflects his life -long passion for his home state.
Ironically for someone who studies social sciences, my third remembrance is also an English teacher. Larry Hall taught me expository writing my first semester of college. I did not realize at the time that this was Lawrence Sargent Hall, whose much anthologized short story The Ledge captures the essence of coastal Maine the way few writers have been able to. All I knew was that a semester of writing for Larry Hall was a gift. He taught writing by asking us to write, and edit, and re-write, and edit… You get the picture. Every writing class I had the privilege to teach decades later was shaped by Larry Hall.
My second semester of college I had the privilege, by pure accident, to take a tutorial from the college President, Roger Howell. There were two of us in this class. We read a book a week on utopian themes and spent one evening each week in the President’s house discussing these works. I should have been intimidated by what I was doing, but at least I realized the power of this man’s intellect. In a second semester we moved from utopia to futures literature which in many ways set the foundation for my future career. Good teachers often live on in your work.
My junior year of college was spent under the tutelage of Frank C. Spooner, Professor of Economic History at Durham University. Spoons, as he was affectionately known, shepherded a group of American college students around the United Kingdom and the continent. He seemed to know everything and everyone, dressed as you would expect an English don, and was gracious always. In the words of the lawyer/singer/songwriter Paul Nunes, “Spoons was my main man.” While not our classroom instructor, we learned more from him than we could have learned in any class.
In my last semester of college I met a force of nature, Matilda White Riley. She taught the only sociology course I ever took, one on the sociology of death and dying. I learned more about how do to social science research in those three months than any other time in my life. The most important lesson I learned from Mrs. Riley was that teaching was about passion. If you did not love the material you were teaching or the act of teaching it, you did not belong in the classroom. Every day her large smile and boundless energy to dive into the material impelled us forward. Like Miss Fickett many years before, she gave her all and expected no less from us. This is the central lesson about teaching for me.
On my 21st birthday Professor Spooner gave me a bottle of vin du pays from Carcassone. To all these teachers of mine I lift a glass of this gift and thank you for giving your best.