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I was an older college student. Early 30s. Bad at math. A dropout, going back to get his degree. I sat in the back rows, with plumbers and Hooters waitresses. I had fun.
As an older student, most professors were part of my peer group. Many teachers had attended the same wild high-school parties I did. Most of which I can’t remember.
But there was one teacher who was different.
She was older. Past retirement age. She was small. White hair. Skin like tissue paper. And in an era when female professors wore T-shirts, she wore tweed skirts.
Between classes, she smoked Marlboro Lights and read books. I often hung out with her on her breaks, because I liked the way she saw the world.
She introduced me to O. Henry, Jane Austen and Victor Frankl. The woman loved the written word. She told me to read Robert Frost. Nobody ever told me to read Robert Frost.
Once upon a time, she wanted to be a writer. But being a writer is hard business. It’s not about skill, or depth of prose. It’s about your marketing department.
So she stuck with teaching.
For one class, we were supposed to write an essay about our hero. I am not an experienced man; I don’t have many heroes. So I chose her. The unassuming woman, who could have been great, but chose to make other people greater.
She chose to teach night classes to raggedy adults with full-time jobs. She chose a life of anonymity. I didn’t know much about her, so I drew on what I knew from her lectures.
She was born in the Dismal ‘30s. Her daddy (“deadie”) walked five miles to a factory to support a big family. She attended school in a two-room schoolhouse. One room was a classroom. One was a bathroom with a broken toilet.
There were no college graduates in her family. But her father loved books and brought them home from the library by the armful. She read aloud to him each evening by the fireplace. Sherlock Holmes. Jules Verne. Jack London. Saint Clemens.
She told her father she wanted to major in English. Her father was moved, but he had questions. “English?” he said. “But what will you fall back on during hard times?”
“If I have something to fall back on, I’ll fall,” she said.
She got her first job teaching at a small college. Somewhere up North. The system was rigged against female professors. So she had an uphill battle to fight. But she fought it.
And somehow, that led her to me.
She was a good teacher. And she was present at my community college graduation, which took place in our cafeteria. She smiled when I received a slip of academic paper which licensed me to handle our native tongue.
The woman left this world at a ripe age. It was a small funeral. But they asked me to say a few words. I couldn’t say much because I didn’t know much.
Still, I told a tiny parlor of family members that a slight, tweed-skirted woman was the reason I became a writer. She was a reason I chose to waste my life on the English language. I only wish she could have been there to hear it.
Then again, maybe other teachers will.