Brand building through storytelling

The subject was English, the lesson was all about life

Among the kids in my high school it was generally agreed that a certain English teacher made a fitting target for the casual cruelty that so often passes for teenage humour. We made fun of her hair, a frizzy cloud of indeterminate colour. We rolled our eyes at her makeup, a clownish blob of rouge on each thickly powdered cheek and a slash of too-bright lipstick that she seemed to have applied in the dark. We wondered where on earth she got those tubular knit dresses she favoured—and was known to wear inside-out, as if she’d been distracted mid-toilette by an insight into Hamlet that she couldn’t wait to share with her equally distractible students, dreaming of love, sex and beer. What defied mockery was our teacher’s love for her subject and for us. Her name was Mrs. Wight.

If you’d asked me about her back then, I’d have said Mrs. Wight wasn’t much of a teacher. She couldn’t mesmerize a class with the power of her perceptions, or even clamp down on the buzz at the back of the room. She had a way of drifting off on tangents that left me scratching my head. I assumed she must have lost her train of thought when she suddenly interrupted our discussion of The Brothers Karamazov with a long, searching look at her 30-odd bewildered students. At last she said (out of nowhere, it seemed), “None of you in this room have done anything irreparable yet.” Looking back, I see on her crumpled face the sorrow for all the unimagined regrets we would bring upon ourselves soon enough.

It didn’t cross my mind that Mrs. Wight must have had regrets of her own—that perhaps she once aspired to more than teaching high school English in Durham, New Hampshire. Did she remember a youthful fling in Greenwich Village, or at least the fantasy of one? Had she been keeping the draft of a novel tucked away in a bottom drawer? Looking back at those knit dresses, which exposed a bit of shoulder along with the contours of her bosom, I detect some bygone era’s notion of bohemian flair.

She may well have been younger than I am today, although I used to think of her as ancient, and therefore no more relevant than the yellowed program for a tea dance preserved in an album. Coaching me for my graduation speech, she insisted on grandiose hand gestures and theatrical pauses that harked back to the days when elocution teachers taught kids to wring every ounce of drama from “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”

She fussed over me, and I found her attentions embarrassing (I had enough trouble fitting in at school without being pegged as Mrs. Wight’s golden child). But she had no patience with the prematurely world-weary angst that defined my attitude toward life. When I turned in an essay that began, “I was born guilty,” she filled the margin with this comment: “No, you weren’t!” And as for my habit of dissing fellow students behind their backs, Mrs. Wight set me straight with a well-deserved tirade that still rings in my ears.

She once caught me heaping scorn on a poem submitted to the school literary magazine, for which I was an editor and she was the faculty advisor. She grabbed me by the scruff of the neck, hauled me into the corridor and let her indignation rip: “That boy’s in love with words and it’s a beautiful thing to see! Don’t you ever, everlet me catch you making fun of someone else’s joy in language!” Confession: I had a crush on that boy and would have thrilled to his Dylanesque metaphors if he’d only noticed my existence.

It’s been almost exactly 43 years since I burst out of high school for the last, long-awaited time, on a warm June night that always floats to mind this time of year. I didn’t have a date to the graduation party, but in the flurry of farewells and parties that preceded the big night I had become, if not exactly popular, at least part of the social scene. Perhaps it would have happened sooner if I’d listened to Mrs. Wight instead of writing her off as a dotty old lady. This morning I pulled my yearbook off the shelf and found her inscription: “To unforgettable Rona—May life be good to you.”

Click here to read “Teachers who changed my life.”  One more thing: a technical glitch prevented some of you from reading my last post, “Bracing thoughts from smart people.” (Thank you, Donna and Jules, for taking time to alert me.) My apologies. I’ve fixed the error. Thank you, husband.

Posted by Rona

Previously posted comments:

Judy Farrant
June 17, 2010 at 1:01PM

Oh, if only all these fabulous albeit quirky teachers knew the praise of being remembered so long after offering us lessons and touching the future through us. Mrs. Allen shared her love of language, freedom and life with us – I can still see her, gliding gracefully through the hallways, her salt and pepper hair still settling almost at her waist (how does one guess a teacher’s age – I’m guessing I’m older now than she was then, too) exuding an air that she was full of poetry and above all pettiness. I loved sitting in her classroom and hung on her every word about life and lit. I enjoyed getting to know Mrs. Wight, Rona, thank you!

Rona Maynard
June 17, 2010 at 2:02 PM

Long gray hair in a suburban 60s high school? What a fearless woman. lLong live the memory of Mrs. Allen!

Donna Champion
June 18, 2010 at 3:03PM

Ann Ehmann–hands down, the best. She was my sophomore English teacher in 1969. She opened my eyes and ears to the wonders of poetry and literature. Somehow, without saying it directly, she taught us that there is a story, a song, in every piece of writing, and her passion was infectious.

Mrs. Ehmann was not dumpy or dowdy. She was a large woman of Irish descent with curly brown hair who reminded me a bit of Julia Child (minus the falsetto voice). A dedicated smoker, there was always a hint of tobacco on her, and her hands would shake inexplicably. Mrs. Ehmann possessed the saddest blue eyes I’d ever seen. They would light up, however, when she would share her favorite poems by Yeats with us. I learned to understand poetry in her class and took my first stabs at finding my own voice, my own song, under her wing. When I’d stray into something beyond my ken, she would gently nudge me back with the words, “Now, Donna, writers write what they know.” I’ve never forgotten her or her passion. I fell in love with it and it became my own.

Not too many years later, I heard that Mrs. Ehmann had died of cancer. She left behind her husband, Bill, and a young son. I was quietly devastated. What a wonderful soul! May the wind be always at your back, dear Ann.

P.S. Rona, it was in Mrs. Ehmann’s class where I first read your short story. “Paper Flowers.”

Rona Maynard
June 18, 2010 at 5:05 PM

You’ve brought Ann and her passion to life, Donna. What was her favourite poem by Yeats, and is it still a favourite of yours? You make me think (along with Judy, who recalled the colourful Mrs. Allen) about all the other teachers, unsung in public but warmly remembered, who will remain vividly present for their students as long as those students have memories. Anyone else have a story to share about an unforgettable teacher? Do chime in.

ruth pennebaker
June 19, 2010 at 11:11AM

Rona — What a beautiful and haunting essay. No wonder I love your blog. This sentence: “None of you in this room have done anything irreparable yet,” is particularly poignant. You can’t help wondering what on earth lay beneath it.

Donna Champion
June 22, 2010 at 9:09PM

I remember that two of Mrs. Ehmann’s favorite Yeats poems were “The Lake Isle of Inisfree” and “The Wild Swans at Coole”—favorites of many an Irish person. They still have the ability to transport me to a far away time and place, and always bring back fond memories of a wonderful teacher and mentor.

Connie (Greene) Fenner
June 25, 2010 at 8:08AM

I was thrilled to read your remembrances of Mrs. Wright. I was not a shining star in her class, but I always loved her spark and her independence.

I’m excited to have a piece of the past come back to excite me again. High school seems so far gone and I have always moved forward and not wanted to look back. This was a great insight—thanks Rona.

Rona Maynard
June 25, 2010 at 10:10 AM

Welcome, Connie. I’ve found the best thing about growing older is the opportunity to revisit the people and places of my past from the broader, richer perspective that experience allows. I see things I missed the first time—like the fact that not everyone thought Mrs. Wight was a figure of fun.

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