Great teachers open up the world for their students. They lovingly point the way to newfound horizons and give their students the intellectual equipment they need to go as far as they can go. As this is the start of a new school year, I want to honor three teachers in my life. Each of them was different in age, appearance, and personality, but all three were impressive human beings who extended great gifts to me.
The year was 1965. Shepherd Knapp School—just outside of Worcester, Massachusetts, where my family lived—was situated in a bucolic span of rolling farm hills. Miss Marsac was our first-grade English and homeroom teacher. We started and finished our day with her. She was young, with a hairdo like Mary Tyler Moore’s Laura Petrie. Miss Marsac always wore dresses, and they were always sunny. Each day she led us in an opening song, organized us into teams for games, made sure we cleaned up after lunch, and wished us well on the way to the bus back to Worcester. On snowy days she made sure we made it down the hills safely on our sleds or toboggans. Our little world was warm, friendly, fun and peaceful.
Then there was the world Miss Marsac opened up for us. Winnie the Pooh, Mr. Popper’s Penguins, Charlotte’s Web, and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe were the roads in. She read each one aloud with a clear, sometimes dramatic voice. At age six, these great books were my first encounters with imagery of arctic critters and barnyard life. I had not bumped into such situations of high improbability—penguins living in the house, a talking pig saved from slaughter by his talking, writing spider friend. I did not know the words “whimsy” and “foibles” at the time, but now I recall feeling the whimsy of Milne’s stories and the real appreciation I had for the human foibles personified in the party of creatures that inhabited the Hundred Acre Wood. They got into the kind of trouble we got into, and we observed their ways out of that trouble with wonder, relief and laughter. Apart from Bible stories, I had not experienced mystery, betrayal, death and resurrection as we saw them unfold in Narnia; nor had my imagination been drawn in by such a range of creatures—the mythical and modern, the pagan and Christian all mixed in together.
I do not recall a thing Miss Marsac ever said about the texts she chose for our English class. Still, I do remember something important. It was the unfamiliar that opened my eyes; it was the set of new worlds that attracted me. Miss Marsac’s voice carried us there. The journey was part of the experience she created each day with her song and lunch routine and games and sweet farewells, but the adventure was by far the best part and the one that sparked a lifelong love of story.
That was first grade. Four years later I attended Durham Academy in Durham, North Carolina. My fifth-grade English and history teacher was Miss Constable. She was a seventy-five-year-old spinster, the daughter of a Baptist minister from a small Carolina town. She shared a home with a friend of similar age, the widow of a former West Point commandant. They kept a beloved poodle, whom Miss Constable took around town with her on her off hours.
Diminutive at less than five feet, she had a preacher’s command of her audience. Like Miss Marsac, Miss Constable wore dresses, only hers were invariably milky blue and pearl colored. She wore dark, sturdy shoes. Her hair was curly and white and always “done” as if she had just visited the beauty parlor. She had black glasses that curved to a corner like a cat’s eyes. A consummate storyteller, she told us that she once and only once had a chance to be married. A young suitor took her to the bridge over the river that ran through her small hometown; but he fell in, and, because he could not swim, she had to jump in and save him. That was it, she said; she could never marry a man who could not swim.
Miss Constable was a stickler for spelling and grammar but not out of an attachment to rules as such. Rather, she loved words, she savored the language, and when she read to us she would stop and wonder openly about the art that went into a phrase or a sentence. She expected her students to revere words, and that demanded good spelling and grammar.
Her love for language caught my attention, and that paid off in short- and long-term ways. Twice I won the poetry composition contests she ran, each time proudly pocketing a crisp dollar bill. A year later, my family prepared to move again, this time to New Mexico. My tiny, formidable teacher showed up at our door with her pet poodle and presented me with a going away gift: a copy of Roget’s Thesaurus. I have used that gift thousands of times, precisely because words warrant the care that quick comparative study provides, the wordsmith’s careful attention to detail, the craft about which Miss Constable expressed such wonder to her students. That thesaurus has accompanied my lifelong love of poetry and writing, born in her classroom.
On the other side of her teaching, Miss Constable led us into the history of North Carolina. The story of the Tar Heel state was a great ride. Among other things, it was my first foray into the Civil War, an experience deeply sobering for the brutality of slavery and the battlefield carnage. It was illuminating to read it in the late ‘60s, there in the heart of the South. Even as a fifth grader, I was learning to draw connections, to see the world historically. Miss Constable made that happen.
Her greatest gift, however, was the trip she led to Roanoke, North Carolina. There, we explored the Lost Colony. That Roanoke was real and that we know where the colony was, but that the colonists who inhabited it just disappeared, was all a great wonder to me. And to stand there on the ground where they walked, to walk that ground, and to hear the reenactors tell the history of Roanoke was storytelling on a whole new level.
On the bus ride back to Durham, Miss Constable called out for the students to listen up. She stood on the front seat and led a cheer. “Give me a C!” We yelled back in unison, “C!” “Give me an O!” “O!” “Give me an N!” And so on until we had spelled her last name. We loved her. She had given us a gem, and she knew it. I for one have never stopped loving history.
Sophomore year, 1974. I was a solid student but shy, and my father wisely required that I take Speech with Mr. Robert L. Gaines at Las Cruces High School. Bob Gaines was what his friends called him. I could never bring myself to call him that, even as I grew to adulthood and shared cocktails with my old teacher. He was the toughest man who ever taught me. And no wonder: he retired a master sergeant from the United States Marine Corps. A veteran of the Chosin Reservoir battle, one of the most heralded moments in the Corps’ history, Mr. Gaines went on to college and became a speech and drama teacher.
He was a trim man, proud to still fit into his uniform years after he left the Marines. He wore a short, Amish-style beard and dark-rimmed glasses. His typical outfit: a muted-colored shirt and dark slacks, a bolo tie, and weathered but polished, low-cut, black, zippered dress boots.
He brought the hard-driving determination and sometimes the percussive voice of his Marine days to the job of teaching, but he always demonstrated great affection for his students. He loved giving us nicknames, sharing lunch, collaborating on projects, and laughing over a good story. As any good coach would, Mr. Gaines corrected what was wrong and only praised what went well. He was what we used to call a “straight shooter.”
At the beginning of sophomore year I was undeniably his worst student. With each speech, I lost control of my memory, my stance, my breathing—all evident in an outbreak of blushing and perspiration. It was all my classmates could do to not erupt in laughter. Of course, had they done so, Mr. Gaines, who always sat in the very back of the room while a student was delivering a speech, would have issued a stiff reprimand deep from the same iron will that kept him alive at the battle of Chosin.
Under his patient, expert coaching, my poor performance changed. By the end of my sophomore year, I was one of his best students. In my junior and senior years, he coached me to state championships in the American Legion Oratorical Contest.
It was exciting to compete and win. But that was not the best gift Mr. Gaines gave me. In teaching me how to write and deliver a speech, he laid two life-changing foundations.
For one thing, I learned how to organize my thought. The basics included leading into a topic, posing a thesis, establishing a plan for developing my point, then delivering that development and concluding it so that the entire presentation was coherent and persuasive. These were all part of the organization Mr. Gaines taught me to master. That skill got me through college and graduate school. It also prepared me to teach students how to write and other teachers how to train their students.
Secondly, Mr. Gaines patiently taught me until I was able to speak in public. My entire life’s work has demanded that I communicate my thought well, most of the time in front of others. As a journalist, campaign manager, teacher, head of school, consultant, and professional coach, I have spoken on thousands of occasions; and speaking was always preceded by some measure of writing. Thus, the two great things he taught me have fueled each other, sustaining more than four decades of work and mission.
Story. Language. History. Writing. Speaking. These are the gifts my best teachers gave me. These gifts are the most important tools I needed to acquire as I journeyed into the wider world.
Andrew J. Zwerneman is president of Cana Academy.
All images by Helen DeCelles-Zwerneman.