In recent months, I’ve had the chance to attend some milestone high school class reunions, and I’ve found that conversations with former classmates often turn to memories of our teachers, the good ones and the not so good ones.
Some of my friends remembered a physics teacher who knew so little about high school physics, that some of them actually complained to their parents. After the principal decided he should observe a class and see for himself, the teacher actually thanked the class for covering up for him.
That was not the case with Miss Bright, the English teacher who introduced me to the work of T. S. Eliot when she included The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock in the syllabus of her Contemporary Literature class. (As a high school exchange student to a school in Australia the year before, I might have studied Eliot’s Portrait of a Lady in my English Literature class, but my school chose the option of Robert Browning’s My Last Duchess off the state-mandated syllabus.) I guess Eliot’s poetry still qualified as “contemporary,” even those though two poems were more than 50 years old.
My classmates and I remember Marilyn Bright for her high standards, but also for how she nurtured the developing writers in her classes. One friend said Miss Bright taught her more about how to write a term paper than any college course ever did. Another recalled that the line from Prufrock—“I have measured out my life with coffee spoons”—came to mind the summer he had an internship at a large law firm. It helped him realize he would never be happy in a world in which he had to keep track of billable hours, and he found much greater happiness, pursuing a career in academia.
When I began researching my novel The Poet’s Girl, about the relationship between Eliot and his little-known American confidante, Emily Hale, I was intrigued by what I could learn about Hale’s relationships with her students. She taught speech and drama at four women’s colleges—Smith, Simmons, Scripps, and Milwaukee-Downer (now part of Lawrence University—and two private schools in Massachusetts—Concord and Abbot academies. She stayed in touch with some of her students for years after they graduated.
It was particularly gratifying to me to speak to some of Hale’s last students at the 60th reunion of Abbot Academy’s Class of 1956 (the formerly all-girls school is now part of Phillips Andover). Their memories reaffirmed for me that she was an excellent teacher, with a strong set of values that she tried to impart to her students. The cast and crew of one of her last high school productions, The Admirable Crichton, all wrote her letters attesting to what she had taught them in the course of putting on that play. (The collected letters turned up in Hale’s papers in the Smith College Archive.) Others recalled her acting talent after seeing her perform in the comedy Solid Gold Cadillac after she retired. Another produced the postcard Miss Hale had sent her, praising her for the job she had done as a prompter for one of the school plays. (Fittingly, it was a portrait from London’s National Gallery of Mrs. Siddons, the most famous English actress of the 18th century.)
I was very sorry when I learned a few years ago that Miss Bright had died of breast cancer at the age of 53 after 28 years of teaching. But I was happy to learn that she had had a “love song” of her own, and had married the single father of one of her students. So a student’s favorite teacher later became her step-mother. And through a complicated series of coincidences, I ended up connecting with her step-daughter and became the recipient of all of my favorite teacher’s piano sheet music (most of it beyond my skill level!)
I’m only sorry now that I missed my chance, not only to tell Miss Bright what she meant to me but also to send her a copy of the novel that she helped to inspire.
So in this new year, make a resolution to reach out to a former teacher, mentor or boss, and thank them for what they taught you. You’ll be glad you did.