Tuesday, May 22, 2012

...tell a teacher "thank-you"

At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. 
Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.
Albert Schweitzer

Since 2002 I've made several moves. If you've read my posts, you know that one time a house moved from beneath me during a storm. Through the kindness of neighbors and strangers, mud and sewage-coated belongings that could be rescued were drug from the sludge. Frankly, I was grateful for all that could not be removed. 'Less is more" has never been more appreciated.

From house to apartment to rental condo (hot water never worked) to rental condo (decided I should buy) to purchased condo (now rented) to a sailboat, then to another condo...this time, with Bill, in northern California. With each move, a letting go; sometimes a losing...or two or three. And with each move, gratitude that I have less stuff. 

Before the move to California, I sorted through most of my things but did not have time to sift, scan and organize paperwork that was filed away. This has occupied my time in recent weeks. Last week I opened a large envelope and found a surprise: six folded themes, each with two grades, one above the other: style over content. Written in 1969, they are yellow with age. Along with these, my seventh grade English grammar notebook. Tucked inside this, I found a paper written in tenth grade. My treasures.

The notebook was compiled in Mrs. Afdahl's class. In her class, I first learned that President Kennedy had been shot. And encountered the mother lode of grammar rules. The paper was written in Mr. Barr's tenth grade class. We were assigned a research paper on a Georgia author of our choosing. I had read Flannery O'Connor's short story "Everything That Rises Must Converge" during my thirteenth summer.

I came of age in the South during the Civil Rights era. This seminal time in America's history united those willing to grow but threatened people indisposed to change. Black leaders, writers and activists such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., James Baldwin and Malcolm X addressed the anger, the sorrow, the hope of their communities. It was, however, a tale of two women and one hat - a story of racial prejudice and ignorance - by Miss O'Connor that resonated with a young white girl.

The terms of our term paper included no encyclopedias. We were to contact our author if possible. Delve into the Georgia Archives for the papers and letters of long-deceased writers. Write to the peers of recently deceased authors. I had the great privilege to correspond with the late Miss O'Connor's mother. Beautiful Kitty Kellam from my mother's garden club was Flannery's childhood best friend. Mrs. Kellam allowed me to interview her for an oral history. The experience was life-changing for me. 

I was empowered to make deferential requests and to ask questions that encouraged critical thinking. I was awed by the generosity of the famous and not-so-famous alike. One of my classmates, Bill Sewell, wrote to novelist and poet, Conrad Aiken, a Pulitzer Prize winner. He was rewarded with an invitation to the writer's Savannah townhouse. The two talked there by the fire, then continued the conversation as they walked the beaches of Tybee Island.  

Mrs. Frances Powell taught me Literature during my junior and senior years. This last sentence is deceptively under-stated. Mrs. Powell challenged, prodded, inspired. Among other verbs. She was a friend outside the classroom, a fact that gave me no advantage in school. If anything, she worked me harder. We got the silly giggles when we climbed a ladder to pick pears at her house in the country and later had long, adult conversations over peanut butter pie in the breakfast room of her house on Pine Forest Circle. For decades she was my confidante. Alzheimer's claimed her incredible mind but I had the privilege of one last visit with her before the illness carried her into the fog. 

As an adult, I would sit with Mr. and Mrs. Powell at church when I returned to Dublin for visits. (I loved him, too.) The above-mentioned Dr. Barr was minister of music so I also saw him and his delightful wife, Lois. On one Sunday morning visit, Mrs. Powell didn't recognize me when I approached. I stepped back, sat on another pew...and wept. She was so near, yet so far away. I wasn't ready to let go. An hour later, during lunch, the phone rang. My late husband answered in his mother's kitchen, then called to me, "You're going to want to take this one."

"Celeste, this is Frances Powell. Jack tells me you were at church and didn't sit with us. You have some explaining to do so come on over now." 

I obeyed and, for the next four priceless hours, had my last conversation with this woman I loved. Multitudes loved her dearly and all had that love returned in spades over the years. I am eternally grateful for our last afternoon together. At the end of the conversation, she stood - shoulders back, chin up - and placed her hands on my shoulders. Her words at the end of our afternoon will remain private and precious. I will say that I have kept a promise I made to her that day. I keep it every time I post a blog. I will write, Mrs. Powell, until I can no longer peck at a keyboard or grip a pen. Or dictate.

All of you have had a teacher - or several - who made a difference. Please tell them. In writing. Make a little effort for someone who worked hard for low pay to change the world, one student at a time. Do it now. If they are no longer present, then pass the love forward.  Others loom large in my life. Mr. Wooddy, my math and drama teacher, is a story for another day. As are my two P.E. teachers, Mrs. Tanzine and Paula Raymer. God bless them...what a thankless task this pair had everytime I walked onto the basketball court. The list of teachers I love - not all had degrees or a job title - is long. 

When our class studied Keats' Ode to a Nightingale, Mrs. Powell said, "Before I die, I want to visit England and hear the nightingales." To my knowledge, she never made that journey. All during her protracted illness, I prayed the same prayer every night: please send into her silence a nightingale's song

I have no idea where my mother's cloisonne Sheffield steak knives ended up a decade ago. Or what happened to a set of my fine china. Clothes and cookbooks have gone by the wayside. But six themes, a paper, and a grammar notebook have never left my side. Literally. 

I am rich. 


Dan Misseri, DHS '66 said...

OH, My . . . Celeste, What a Pearl, Precious Memory, you have dug out of the mud, and stirred the Spirit of Mrs. Powell that is planted in all who were so blessed to have her as a teacher. Mr. Barr, I had in the 9th and 11th grades. If I had had math teachers as good as the English and Lit. teachers that I had, I would have been a rocket scientist, or at least an architect. Mrs. Frost was the best math (geometry) teacher. I aced geometry and still use it everyday.
I am glad that you could be there for Mrs. Powell, she was always there for us. Thanks for breaking the fog and helping me remember.

Celeste said...

We were all blessed by these fabulous teachers. Writing - in one fashion or another - was my bread and butter for many years. It is now my joy.

Dot Hall Hardy said...

This is a wonderful tribute to not only Mrs. Powell, but also to all good teachers. My post-secondary paths led more more to areas in the sciences and visual arts, but whatever basic grammar, composition, and literature skills I posses are directly linked to Mrs. Powell. Taking only the required core courses in English and Literature in college, it was because of Frances Powell that I was able to complete my dissertation with not too many mistakes in grammar and composition. Thanks for the memories.

Celeste said...

She made me want to be better...what a gift. Hers was a calling. I'm glad she answered.

Charles Van Gorkom said...

yes, you are rich, blessedly rich.