Meissner Elementary School was a little intimidating when I arrived there as a second grader. The halls went up and down and all around—or at least they seemed that way to me—because of the additions to the building through the years. I used to have nightmares about wandering around lost and unable to find my way to class.
Some of the teachers also scared me. A tall, thin lady named Mrs. Crochet (or something like that) always glowered at me as I tiptoed past her room. Fortunately, I got to keep on walking to Mrs. McCormick’s classroom, where I felt safe, even loved. She was plump and nice and always smiling. Except for the amazing day she was called out to the hall and returned, red-eyed and crying, to tell us President Kennedy had been assassinated.
My 5th grade social studies teacher wasn’t one to smile much. I guess that when you knew as much as he did about things like the Cuban Missile Crisis you were bound to look a little grim.
I can’t say I learned much English in sixth grade. Mrs. XXX. (Sorry, even after all these years it’s still not safe to say her name aloud.) terrorized us every day when she stomped into the room, dropped her stack of books with a resounding crash onto the oak desk, and yelled at us because we weren’t open to the right page. That and her sneers and demeaning comments to the poor, raggedy boy in the back are all I really remember from her.
But my eighth grade English teacher was completely different. Don’t get me wrong. She wasn’t all smiley and gooey sweet. She was tough. She didn’t allow any slacking. We WOULD learn how to diagram sentences if it killed us. But we really learned grammar there. And when I went off to Southern Illinois University to major in English I was the only student in the grammar class who knew the subject. SIUE, like other universities, is turning out English teachers who don’t know grammar themselves and have been told that grammar is somehow passé, unnecessary, maybe even illegal or immoral.
But I beg to disagree. A strong foundation in grammar gave us the tools to write, whether it be productive business correspondence, entertaining stories, or Christmas letters that won’t have our readers wanting to hang themselves.
I loved it when we got to write stories in Mrs. Fite’s class. I actually wrote my magnus opus there in 8th grade. It was a story about a person being wrongfully incarcerated in a mental hospital. (The author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest stole my idea or I would be a rich and famous author today.) I felt pretty good about how my story turned out. That was its own reward, but I also got a red star at the top and Mrs. Fite’s words,
“Be sure to give me a signed copy of your first book!”
She probably didn’t realize how important those words were. (Maybe she wrote them on everyone’s papers.) But they changed the way I thought about myself and ignited a dream I never forgot.
She was good at encouraging, good at seeing into kids’ hearts. Heck, she actually liked her students. Unlike The Teacher Whose Name May Not Be Spoken, the one who verbally abused the poor and downtrodden, Ruth had a heart for the bad boys, the hard cases, even the ones who didn’t do so well in English grammar. My brother recently told me that it’s no exaggeration to say that the encouragement and hope she gave him may have saved his life. And I might never have had the courage to write if not for Mrs. Fite’s words.
And so I dedicated my first book to her. Unfortunately, Mrs. Fite was no longer with us when Time and Again came out. But I hope she knows. It was an honor to honor her memory by presenting a copy of Time and Again to Ruth’s family at a book signing in my hometown.
The moral of this story is that teachers ought to encourage their students. They might remember it a half a century year later.
Deborah Heal is the author of the young adult novels Time and Again and Unclaimed Legacy. She lives in Waterloo, Illinois, where she enjoys reading, gardening, and learning about southern Illinois history. She is married and has three grown children, three grandchildren, and a canine buddy named Scout. Currently, she is working on book three in the Time and Again series, in which Abby’s college roommate Kate enlists her help solving a family mystery. For more information on Deborah, you can find her on Amazon.com and at her website.