Mrs. Anderson, my senior English teacher in high school, was an oddity. She drove an enormous old Buick with high, sharp tailfins from her home in Palestine to Oakwood, my hometown in East Texas, every day. She had retired years before but fate, or an inadequate pension, sent her to us as an afterthought.
She would gaze out the big open windows of our classroom sometimes and be obviously somewhere else. Every once in a while she would cast a real pearl of wisdom, like when she was asked how long our essay should be. “A good essay,” she proclaimed, fiddling with the reading glasses that hung on a lanyard from her tiny neck, “should be exactly the length of a girl’s skirt: long enough to cover the subject but short enough to keep it interesting.”
She would often as not forget what she intended for us to study and open the book to something entirely different, and she left little memos to herself all over her desk and around the room. She famously kept a note taped – I don’t remember if we had Post-it notes in the late 1960’s or, at least, if we did in Oakwood – over the ignition of her Buick to remind her where to insert the key before driving home again every afternoon.
We gave her hell, of course. But she never seemed to mind.
There was always, on any given day, a stack of random books and magazines on her desk from which she would lift one up occasionally and tell us about the story it contained or read a bit to us. And when we were supposed to be reading silently, she actually would be. She would nod during the enterprise, and sometimes smile, wandering around the room from one book to another like Merlin among his potions. She would ask us what we thought the author meant in a passage, and would actually listen to our answers.
That year we dipped into Beowulf, Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrimage, things from Mr. Shakespeare, the poetry of the Romantic Age, and sundry other masterpieces. Not in the correct chronology, but as the spirit moved Mrs. Anderson. I probably didn’t learn the proper order of worship of those great writers and their works until I went to college and became an English teacher, and I’ve made sure to teach them in their appropriate sequence for a long time now. Teachers should understand that this little tale is not intended to encourage you to stare out your window, if you have one, or to deviate from your curriculum. All of those epics would have made more sense to me on first reading them if we had followed a straight road from start to finish.
But lest you go thinking that my year with Mrs. Anderson was a waste let me assure you of one thing. I became an English major and a teacher in large part because of her.
She was quirky; no doubt. But I have never encountered an educator who loved what she was doing and the subject she was teaching more than that good woman. And her devotion to reading and good, clear writing fueled, and continues to fuel, my passion for those things.
Years ago, when I was a young teacher, I intended to go see Mrs. Anderson and apologize for my often less than stellar behavior in her class. I should have, and wish I had. Surely she and her big Buick headed off into eternity decades ago. But if I could I would tell her now that the day she obviously saw how carefully I was paying attention when she read us a short story by Rudyard Kipling was a real game-changer for me. And her handing me the volume of his collected stories on my way out and telling me to keep it as long as I wanted was both an act of kindness and the finest lesson I ever received in how to be a real teacher.
I don’t know if Mrs. Anderson had a radio in that Buick, or if she had a note taped on the dashboard about where to turn it on. But if she did ever listen to it she might have heard the perfect definition of what she did every day, via a popular song of that era by Crosby, Stills & Nash:
“Teach your children well.”