Teachers, and Lessons, We'll Never Forget

Article excerpt

Every year about this time, as high school seniors cram for finals and wait impatiently for their cap-and-gown moment of glory, I think about Miss Johnson, my senior-year English teacher.

Tall and imposing, with angular features, graying hair, and a tight smile, she took particular delight in her well-earned reputation as a "hard" teacher. She was not there to be loved. She was there to teach, and to prepare us for what lay ahead: demanding professors.

"When you get to college, you'll thank me for this," she intoned again and again, wagging her long index finger at us as she handed out yet another time-consuming assignment. She spoke proudly of grateful former students who came back to express appreciation for the preparation and grounding she had given them.

We didn't want to believe her, and we groaned at the research papers she assigned. "Footnotes?" we grumbled privately. "An annotated bibliography? She's gotta be kidding."

But she wasn't kidding. And she was right, of course. Sure enough, when we scattered across the country to our chosen schools, legions of professors were waiting to give us just the kind of intellectual workouts she described. Only then did we silently thank Miss Johnson. We realized we were better prepared because of her.

Call it delayed appreciation, this belated acceptance of the valuable lessons embedded in particular assignments or requests. In countless situations, someone demands more than we want to give or more than we think we are capable of doing, and it turns out to be a gift.

In the case of Miss Johnson, beneath her sometimes chilly exterior beat the heart of a dedicated teacher who loved literature, good writing, and stimulating ideas. She encouraged us to read Harper's Magazine and The Atlantic Monthly. She introduced us to small literary magazines we had never heard of. She even doled out praise when it was due.

Ask friends and relatives about the Miss Johnsons they remember in their lives - the men and women who imposed difficult rules or made unpopular requests - and the answers are richly varied. …