The English program at David Lipscomb High School was rigorous, to say the least.
Miss Smith and Miss Tracey, my favorite and most demanding English teachers, were legends. Miss Tracey also taught Latin, and when it came time to conjugate a verb, she always chose “neco,” which means “to kill.” This was exactly what a freshman male needed to stay focused in a class where names like “Cicero,” “Livy,” and “Etruscans” swooped around like bats.
She brought that ferocity to passive-voiced verbs, -ly adverbs, and vacuous phrases, such as “There is….” Alligators and crocodiles have a transparent eyelid called a “nictitating membrane” that protects their eyes underwater. When God created Smith and Tracey, He also gave them a special sight apparatus. This one made misspellings, grammatical errors, and syntactical stutters as obvious as crickets hopping up and down on the page.
I went up after class a handful of times to dispute a grade, and though I would sometimes reclaim two or three points, I think they were rewarding me for my boldness, not correcting their own mistakes.
My senior year, I wrote my research paper about Auden’s poem “Musee des Beaux Arts.” When I flipped to the last page of the paper where Miss Tracey always wrote her two grades for content and mechanics and their average, I saw a big red “100.”
That blossoming warmth of relief and pleasure filled my belly and spread to the top of my head. I wriggled in my seat. I looked around, wondering if my classmates were pleased with their grades.
I felt as though I had been coronated. My grade was a crown.
I had overcome my immaturity and lethargy long enough to give my best. I had tasted the sweetness of being rewarded for a difficult, sustained effort. I had actually explored my potential rather than flung a limp, minimal effort at my teacher and projected my disgust with myself onto her.
I may have had natural aptitude in English, but I still needed excellent teachers to create a habitat where the pursuit of excellence could happen. I needed a place to find a savage pleasure in putting forth my best effort, the same pleasure I have since felt when I sprint at the end of a long run.
Few things in life are richer than earning the respect of people you respect. Respect makes you rich. When I hugged Miss Tracey at graduation, I saw pride, respect, and tears in her eyes. She had helped grow me up.
She was my mentor four years later when I returned to my alma mater to teach English in the very room where I took Latin and English classes.
I felt like a hack every single day. My temper would flare like a scared snake over what I took to be tokens of disrespect, trash under desks and the horsemen of my marble chess set broken and left on the board without an apology. Incessant whining ate into my patience. I felt like I was putting on a shirt and tie to quiz roomfuls of cats and mules on verbals and trivia from Shakespeare’s Macbeth. I felt like a talking head.
My students were cupcakes compared to their parents, some of whom wanted to drink my blood.
I remember the morning I found the first white hairs—not gray, white!
Oh, this is what stress feels like, I thought. This is the end of youth.
But I loved my students too. I wanted them to want more for themselves. I wanted them to want the world. I wanted them to find the power to serve. I wanted them to be bold and beautiful and compassionate and obedient in suffering.
I run into one of them every once in awhile, and I think God must have disguised many of my failures because they always walk toward me with smiles on their faces.
Being a teacher is hard work.
Miss Tracey will retire soon. Miss Smith plans to retire next month. They were my teachers, truly. They showed me the skills and gifts that God had put on the shelves in my soul. They loved me enough to care more about my growth than being cool.
Today, I honor the teachers in my life.
Did you have a teacher who made a difference in your life?
Have you ever said, “Thank you”?
Look up a mailing address, write a letter, not an email, and let them know that their work made all the difference to you.