Adieu! Beloved Teacher


I received word several weeks ago regarding the passing of a former teacher. The information was unsubstantiated at the time and I hoped, for a moment, that perhaps she was merely ill. I hoped I would get a chance to say, “Thank you.” I did not get that chance. The Rift Valley Academy (RVA) grapevine can be surprisingly accurate when relaying the big news while simultaneously vague in conveying the necessary details.

At the prodding of a classmate I was compelled to dig for more detail. Sometime in the last two years I became the designated class keeper of the emails. She felt a message to inform the entire class was warranted. I had thought the same but, without facts, I was wary. Eventually I located an official obituary. It was confirmed. Cancer. July. Obviously the grapevine moves a little slower when the news is not only factual, but sad or tragic… as opposed to intriguing, salacious and highly suspect as to its origin.

Note: While my addressing a former teacher as “Liz” may seem a bit informal, please be aware that it is not my place to reveal her full name in the grand blogosphere. I never addressed her as such in person although the nickname was used quite affectionately by her students for a number of years… as was “Wintie”… a playful shortened homage to her surname. She knew we used them both. Nothing got past that woman.

Liz was a legend. Senior English was her domain and she was known to be a demanding dictator.

I arrived at RVA in seventh grade and within weeks I feared eventually having this woman in class. My brother was in twelfth grade that year. Liz was his English teacher. He agreed that she was tough. Class was hard. He did, however, have a twinkle in his eye when he admitted these things. I would learn later that Jimmy had been one of her favorites. A family trait, it would seem.

My introduction to Liz came earlier then Senior English as she chose to be one of the staff members sponsoring our class. Boarding school. We had to have adults around in a multitude of capacities. Class sponsors were responsible for guiding class decisions and helping plan class events. They rocked. As students, we enjoyed her in this role and yet we continued to fear the day we would be with her in the classroom. Eventually that day came and she was, indeed, a very hard teacher. She was there to prepare us for college and she would not let us forget it. But, she was also fair, caring, passionate and even, on occasion, a bit playful or mischievous. She loved teaching.

Liz expected us to be well versed in grammar by the time we reached twelfth grade. She chose instead to focus heavily on literature (Brit Lit, as dictated by the curriculum) and vocabulary. Words. We studied words. More accurately, we broke them down and analyzed their very core. Root words. Prefixes. Suffixes. This word can be made out of this and those words can be made out of that. Words. Words. Words. It was utterly wordgasmic. We learned words and we read. We dove into Beowulf, Ivanhoe, Hamlet (Lord, how we studied Hamlet.), etc. and, while my Brit Lit interests had been ignited in ninth grade when introduced to Romeo and Juliet & A Tale of Two Cities, it was here… with Liz… where I fell deeply in love with British Literature. It would go on to become the focus of my (yes, unfinished) college degree.

I remember a lot of things about Liz that year beyond how hard we studied for her class. I recall her teasing threats to cut the lengthening locks on a few of the boys. A master pianist and organist, Liz was the accompanist for the school choir. I was her designated sheet music page turner. (My maiden name, by the way, is “Turner”… a pun she enjoyed deeply and even referenced when she signed my yearbook.) One morning I waltzed into class, looked her straight in the eye and announced that I was not prepared for our vocabulary quiz that day. I’d had an away field hockey game the night before and we had not returned to campus until much later than usual. I chose to sleep and not study. I expected chastisement. I received a smile… and a chuckle… and a “D” on the quiz. We had an Ivanhoe themed class party that year and I was reminded by a classmate that Liz allowed us to tie her to a stake. She was a character. At graduation I got a hug and I was not alone. I think we all got a hug. Not only did she love teaching; she loved us… each and every one. We went into her class with varying degrees of fear and apprehension. We came out knowing we’d been changed. I, for one, was grateful.

The last time I saw Liz was the summer following my sophomore year of college. I was waiting tables at Shoney’s while going to summer school and trying to find my own feet as an adult. The restaurant was right off the interstate and we were having a particularly difficult and busy night. Standing on the server’s line, I remember putting my head down briefly. When I lifted it up I saw Liz walk past the window. I thought I was dreaming. Of all the places! Driving down I-30 with her new fiancĂ©, Liz had decided she would like a bowl of soup. After last seeing her at RVA graduation in Kijabe, Kenya two years prior… fate led her to my Shoney’s in small town Arkansas. Despite the insanity of the night, I was able to convince my fellow wait staff to split up my tables. I called an RVA classmate who happened to be in the same town, just for the summer, and she drove out to Shoney’s as well. There we sat and we caught up. I was able to share with her my passion for literature and plan to major in English. Her eyes widened and she smiled the biggest smile I had ever seen on her face. Her news? With a new love in her life, Liz was finally getting married at the age of fifty. It was hard, but she had said her goodbyes to Rift Valley Academy. She was gone from campus in body, but I’m quite positive her spirit and legacy remained… just as they will linger strong in the hearts and minds of those of us blessed enough to have called her our teacher.

I am thankful for that last evening I spent with her in a random restaurant booth fifteen years ago. I am thankful I shared that her class had helped inspire me. I do have, however, one regret now that she is gone. As mentioned above, I don’t recall telling her, “Thank you.” I never said the words. I also never told her that she was the single most influential teacher, in a classroom sense, of my pre-university education. It was inferred, perhaps, but never declared. And so, I am telling her now. I have no doubt that she can hear me.

Liz,

I can no other answer make, but, thanks, and thanks. ~William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night

You were the best of the best and you will be missed.

12 comments:

  1. ok... didn't plan on crying this morning. Guess I shouldn't have read your post. Well written. Somehow, I'm sure that Liz knows what an impact she had on your life!

    Bethany

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  2. It's a mystery to me how RVA managed to produce graduates with any amount of character after she left.

    I too was one of the freaks that enjoyed senior English--the literature, the vocabulary, the movies (Ivanhoe!!)--and she was the main reason. It only took her a couple weeks into first term to realize I wasn't anything like my sister (one of her favorites two years ahead of me)--and I'll always be grateful for that.

    And I think she knew.

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  3. My condolences, Beth--

    Two of my mentors are teachers that became friends (I still have trouble calling one of them anything other than Dr. ___________, the other I quit referring to by anything but his first name after a year of knowing him.

    One was my theology professor, an ordained minister, and a devout orthodox Christian; the other was my English professor (and one of the reasons I ultimately chose to focus on literature over religion), and an angst-laced, mercurial agnostic.

    They were--and still are--best friends--and the two of them together got me through college (I was a mess; a talented mess, but a real trainwreck).

    Every time someone I know passes away, I wonder to myself how much I really loved that person--how sorry I really am that they're gone.

    I finally came up with a way to tell. If I couldn't imagine a world in which said person did not exist--if it feels that the world is not right with them gone--then I know I actually knew them, that they had become a part of me.

    Your teacher, needless to say, was, and remains, a part of you.

    I'm truly sorry. I can only imagine how I would feel if I lost one of the aforementioned former teachers, one of those mentors who became my friends.

    Thank you for writing about it.

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  4. I do remember the fondness she had for your class. You guys almost ruined her rep for me by making her appear human at times. ;o) Well, done, a very nice tribute to a one of kind, unforgettable lady! oh and I cant believe she just happened to come by Shoneys where you worked. Random?...I think not!

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  5. I had a professor who died recently. I only knew her for one semester, but she helped me and changed me a little for the better.

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  6. What an amazing legacy she left. She'll live on through your memories. xo

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  7. She was a legend and a very special person. She really helped us prepare for that jolt we would get away from RVA.

    I'm so glad you did a post like that. Thanks.

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  8. Eureka! I should answer comments.

    Bethany: Sorry, luv. It made me a bit teary to write it. =)

    Dori: I wasn't anything like Jimmy either. She still loved me. =) Personally, I think we ARE the character of RVA and not just because of Liz. Life is simply far too easy on those kids now.

    Jake: I have one of those college professors. Again, she was one of the difficult ones. I've discovered recently that, though retired, she is in this town with me. I now have to make a visit... reconnect.

    mom2boyz: She did love us... or maybe she was softening up.

    Bybee: I'm glad you had one of those professors. I think we all need one to change us at least a little bit.

    Finn: She will. Thanks!

    Namib Naturalist: I don't think any of us will ever forget her.

    LOUDnPROUD: Thank you!

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  9. What a beautiful post, and tribute!!!
    You're amazing!

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  10. Lovely words, Beth. I was one of the strange ones who looked forward to the dreaded Sr. English. I was one in the first class of Sr. English she did not teach. While saddened at having never taken her class, watching her fall in love before our very eyes made up for it a thousand times over! Who knew she had it in her to be giddy, silly, and flirtatious at rugby games? Mr. B being chosen as her replacement took a bit of the sting out as well.

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  11. Michele: Amazing? *smile*

    Carrie: I was simultaneously apprehensive & excited about Liz's class. After seeing how happy she was when we met at Shoney's that night... I would have loved to watch her fall in love. Ah... Mr B.! What I wouldn't give for a sit down and a pot of coffee with that man right now...

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"Stranger, if you passing meet me and desire to speak to me, why should you not speak to me? And why should I not speak to you?" ~Walt Whitman

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