My Mind

My Mind
This is my mind

Monday, April 7, 2014

Bright lights and flickering candles

“Hey, Rickey.  How was your first day at school?” asked my mother.  She had just walked in.  I looked at the clock.  It was 4:30.
“Hey, mom.  It started out alright.”  I had that look she was used to.
“Yes?” She said coaxing me along.
I put the book down on the table and looked directly at her.
“All my classes seemed OK until we got to English class after lunch.  I was pretty happy about them, til English.”
“What happened in English?”  Still coaxing.
“Well, we got this new teacher.  I really don’t like her. She lectured us on how we all needed to study hard in her class because she had mapped out a year that will make us ready for any college.”
“That’s good isn’t it?” Mom asked.  She took off her coat, draped it on a hangar and placed it in the closet. I still wasn’t responding quickly enough so she continued. “Isn’t it?”
“Yeah, I guess so but she sounds mean.  She isn’t going to make it easy.  She made that clear. Lot’s of essays and themes and a couple of major papers.  Plus she said she loves discussion questions on tests.”
“She sounds like she wants all of you to learn.  I think that’s a good thing.” She had gone to the kitchen and begun to rummage around in the pots and pans.
“Well, I really can’t stand her.  I don’t like her attitude.” My lips poked out into a pout as I thought of all the studying this course was going to put me through.  This was my senior year.  It was supposed to be the easiest of them all.
“You know, Rickey, every year there is one teacher that you decide you really don’t like.  Then by the middle of the year you can’t praise that teacher enough.  Usually it’s the one that makes you think.”
“It certainly won’t happen with this one,” I growled.
“Wait and see,” said my mother.  “Wait and see.” She was smiling when I looked up from my gloom.
“Not this time,” I said with determination.
The next day I dragged my feet into HER class and slumped down in my chair near the back.  I looked up on the board where SHE had written an assignment.  There was a list of titles.  We were to choose one, it read, for our Term paper due in December.
SHE was sitting at her desk fiddling with papers.  SHE would look up occasionally, smile and nod at another straggler coming through the door.  The bell had rung a while back.
SHE stood as the last person came in to find the last seat available.
“Close the door behind you,” SHE said.
SHE came from behind her desk.  SHE walked in front of it.  SHE stood for a moment looking around at the faces in front of her.  SHE wore a plaid skirt, white blouse and a green knit sweater that buttoned up the front.  My eyes glanced down to her legs which were covered in stockings with thick stripes of differing colors.  None of the other teachers dress like that, I was thinking.  SHE began to speak.
“I think all of you are a little intimidated by my expectations of you.”
“Yeah,” I said.  “Already you are telling us to pick a term paper topic.”
She zeroed in on me.
“And your name, please?” SHE demanded.
“Rick Croucher,” I said.  Lingering after that statement was an implied, what’re you going to do about it.
“Yes I did, Mr. Croucher,” SHE responded.  “And for a very good reason.”
“Yeah?” I interjected.
“Yes.” SHE returned my attitude.  “I want each of you to pick one of the topics on the board and begin your research as soon as possible.  Too many times students leave these papers until the last minute and it shows.  I want your full attention on it.  I want your best work in this paper since it is going to be one-third of your semester grade.”
The entire class broke into light hysteria.
“A third?” shouted a voice from the back of the room.
“Yes.  One-third.  When you go to college you will need the writing skills I want to instill in you.” SHE smiled.  I saw the devil smiling at me.
“But some of us aren’t going to college.”  That voice in the back of the room shot back at her.
The devil’s grin left her face as SHE spoke over the din that was rising.
“Alright!  Quiet down! Whether you go or not is up to you.  If you are in this class you are going to be prepared.  If you don’t want to be involved in this class there are other English classes into which you may transfer.  If that is your wish you may leave my class now and head up to the office.  They will do what they can for you.  As for this class, you will be studying hard and you will be a much better writer by the end of your senior year.”
Several students gathered their books and left.
“Shut the door behind you, please,” SHE said to the last one.  SHE watched him as he pulled it closed.  The slam of the door sealed the rest of us in with HER.
“Mr. Croucher?”
“Ma’am?” My Southern breeding came to the rescue as I was cursing inside.
“Aren’t you going to leave with your other classmates?”
“I have to stay.  I’m going to college.” I slid down in my chair giving her a rebellious look.
“Ah.” SHE said.  “I guess we are stuck with each other.”
“I guess so,” I said in my churlish manner.
“Yes,” SHE said looking down her nose at me.
SHE went on to explain what SHE was expecting from this class.
“My tests will consist of Essay questions mostly.  Some True and False or multiple choice questions may be a part but mostly Essay.  I will require several Theme papers in addition to the main Term papers.  The themes can be subjects entirely of your own choosing and at least three to five pages long.”
I threw my pen on my notebook.  SHE arched her eyebrow at me then turned to the board.
“These are your topics for term papers.  Choose something that will capture your imagination.  I want meticulous notes on three by five cards.  These notes will help you flesh out your ideas.  In two months I want to review those cards to see if you are on the right track.  When you write the paper I want footnotes to show your sources.  I do not want a plagiarized paper.  I want your thoughts and yours alone when you have finished.  Everything you draw from your sources is to be used in your determining your own ideas about what it means as a whole.  Is all of this clear?” SHE asked as SHE turned to view the class.
“What do you mean you want to see our note cards?” I spat out.
“Ah, Mr. Croucher.  I would think that would be obvious to you.  You take your notes on the aforementioned three by fives.  When you have a stack of them, you bring to me one day in class and we review them together.  I will tell you if you are on track or not.”
“Seems kind of stupid to me.”  My attitude blazed out.
“Yes, I’m sure it does.  To you.  Be that as it may, it will be a part of your grade for the semester.  It will prepare you for the second semester Term paper.  So I would make a real attempt here if you plan to pass.” SHE dismissed me with a slight toss of the head.
I sat smoldering and watching the clock.  When would this hell class be over.
SHE continued her droning on as I doodled on my notebook.  Finally the bell rang. I gathered my books, jumped up and ran out without a backward glance.
“…if you plan to pass…”  Those words continued on a loop through my brain. 
I walked to my mother’s car to the side of the classes.  One of the other guys from class approached me.
“What do you think of the new teacher?” he asked.
“I think she should go back where she came from.  I really can’t stand her.”
“It sounds like she will be good for anyone planning to go to college.  I hear they make you write a lot of papers in college.”
“Yeah, I expect that in college, but not our senior year.  It’s supposed to be a crip year.  We’re Senior’s for goodness sake.  We’re supposed to be having fun.  Not taking up valuable fun time with work outside class.”
“I like her,” he said.  “She ain’t hard to look at neither.”
I jumped into the tancan.  I had to pick my mother up from work so I headed that way.  I found a parking space just outside the back door.  While I waited I looked at the list of topics I had copied from the board.  Some of them sounded OK.  There was a tap on the window which turned out to be mom.  I reached over to unlock the door.  She got in.
“Well? How did it go?” she asked.
“How did what go?”
“English, with the new teacher you hate.”
“I still hate her.  She singled me out in class and then had the audacity to tell me I better straighten up if I want to pass.”
“What did you do?”  She looked concerned.
“Nothin’” I said sheepishly.
“Does she still seem so bad?”
“Yes, she does.  Already she’s got us picking out term paper topics.  It isn’t due until December but she’s got us picking out topics AND on top of that we have to fill out cards that SHE HAS to check in two months.”
“Sounds like she will be good.”
“I don’t want to talk about HER anymore.”  My mother was used to my tone and just smiled at my petulance.
I whipped through my homework that evening.  There wasn’t much on the TV so I went to my room and closed the door.  The list was on top of my notebook.  I picked it up again.  An author caught my eye.  I decided to give that one a go since there was no way out of the assignment.
Each day I walked into HER class planning to hate every moment.  SHE had brought in a record player the next time I actually listened to HER.  I had missed the introduction but was glad to hear something besides HER droning on.  My English book was open to the right page but I hadn’t read it because it was gibberish, some kind of original English that sounded like a foreign language and of absolutely no use to me.
“Now listen closely,” SHE said. I looked up as SHE deftly placed the needle on the first groove.

  “Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
Tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the ram his halve cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(so priketh hem nature in hir corages); “

And there it was, the gibberish on the page in front of me mellifluously flowing into the air around us.  Rich tones wafted across the ear.  I closed my eyes as it continued.  It made no sense but it certainly sounded like poetry.
The needle was lifted.  The sounds ended and SHE began to speak.
“That is how English sounded at that time.  Nothing like we are used to.”
“Why do we have to learn it then?” asked a voice in the back.
“Because it is the beginnings of English literature.  I will play it again.  I want you all to learn the pronunciation so you can repeat it for me.  You should be able to feel the merging sounds that make up poetry.  Here we go.”
Once again it drifted into the air around us and we were caught up in the sounds.  This lady was the first teacher to bring in a record for students to hear.
“Now, let’s try to repeat those sounds,” SHE said.
 The class spoke in unison.  I joined in.  We made a wreck of the sounds almost from the beginning.  The mistakes made some of us laugh and then the entire class began laughing. 
SHE was laughing too.
“Quiet down, now,” SHE said.  “We don’t want the other classes complaining.  Now, let’s try again from the beginning.”
We all smiled and recited once more.  It was more fun here than at home trying to make sense of it.
SHE had a translation that brought those ancient words into the present. 
“OH!” I shouted.  “That’s what it’s about.”
SHE looked over at me and smiled.
The chink in the armor I wore cracked just a bit because I smiled back.  When I realized it I returned to my sullen self and looked down at the page.  The bell rang announcing the class’ ending.  I ran out.
The next day I strolled back into class to see the record player still there.  SHE was sitting at her desk checking her attendance record.  SHE looked up nodded and checked my name.
“Are we going to listen to more old English?” I asked with a crack of a smile.
“Actually, Mr. Croucher, I brought in some ballads.  I thought we’d listen to some of the songs of Chaucer’s time.” SHE looked back at her book to mark another student in.
“In that alien English?”  I asked, thinking it funny.
SHE didn’t look up but said, “No, you will recognize what is being said.”
I settled into my seat.  Another day of records wasn’t a bad way to send an hour.  At least we weren’t discussing another passage in a musty old English book.
The class settled in after the bell rang.  All eyes faced front.  SHE got up from HER chair. Picking up an album SHE proceeded to the record player.
“Today we listen to Old English ballads as sung by troudadours of ye oldee times.”
Everyone chuckled.  I smiled. SHE placed the needle on the record.  We listened to ballads for an hour.  Barbry Allen stuck in my head from that day to this, it being my favorite of that day.  My attitude toward this class began to soften from that moment.  I was beginning to see that learning could be fun.
“Thank you, Ms. Smithwick,” I said as I passed her desk.  “I enjoyed that.”
“I’m glad you did, Mr. Croucher.”  She turned to another student who was thanking her.
I looked back as I turned at the door to see her looking at me with a bit of a smile on her face.
The corridor was packed with students headed to their next class.  I slipped through the crowd heading to the car. 
“That was really a good class,” said my buddy who had asked me for a ride home.
“Yeah, it was.  Maybe she isn’t so bad after all.”
“I know she ain’t bad to look at.  She always makes me feel like I’m her only student.”
We got into the car.  I took him home then went to pick up my mother.
“Well?” asked my mother as she sat in the passenger’s side.
I knew what she meant.
“It wasn’t so bad today.  She brought I some records and we listened.  You gotta hear one of those songs.  It’s called Barbry Allen.  I think you would like it.”
My mother smiled at me.  She had known all along that this teacher would be my favorite before the year ended.
The next day when I walked through the door she looked up with a smile on her face.
“Mr. Croucher, have you picked your Term paper topic?”
“I’m thinking about writing on Thomas Hardy,” I responded dropping my books on my desk.
“Thomas Hardy?”  She pondered a while.  “I can see that. However he is a very depressing writer.  With your morose inclination he might not be the best choice for you.  Would you like to think a little while longer on your topic?”
“NO! Ma’am,” I spouted out before thinking.  “I chose my topic.  I’ll stick with it.”
“Your choice then.”
‘Yes ma’am,” I said with a smile.
As the year wore on our teacher-student relationship improved slowly.
AS class was almost over near the holidays we were gathered in front of her desk talking about our plans for the Christmas holiday.  The kids began to slip into the hallway preparing to leave for the weekend. She asked me to stay behind.
“Yes ma’am,” I said in my best Southern manner.
“I just wanted to say that I’ve looked over your term paper and found it surprisingly good.”
“You’re surprised?”
“Yes, I am. To betruthful, I thought you would be one of my dimmer lights.  You had such an attitude when you first came into my class that I thought you were lacking somewhat in intelligence.”
In the beginning, SHE had divided her students into two categories, “flickering candles” and “brightly shining lights.”  Obviously I had been seen as a flickering candle.
“Yes’m, I guess I was a little rebellious.  I never had to work in a class before.  They were all easy.  You were the first teacher who ever made me dig for my education.”
“A little rebellious?  That chip on your shoulder was practically a boulder.”
“Yes’m.  I’m not sure when I lost it but I guess I did.  I believe this class is the most enjoyable of all my classes.”
“That’s flattering, Rickey.  I’m glad you have blossomed into one of my shining lights.  I’m glad I didn’t give up on you.”
“So am I.  I really couldn’t stand coming to this class for the longest time.  Now, I wouldn’t miss it.”
“Thank you, Rickey.  I hope you have a very Merry Christmas this year.  I believe all of you students are the best Christmas gift I could have ever had.”
I blushed and wished her a Merry Christmas too.
It has been fifty years since that year in English has been over.  SHE has probably been the most important influences on my life.  I know SHE has always been in my heart and spirit.  I saw her this last weekend and she is still as vibrant and beautiful as she was all those years ago.  We all loved her.  We all love her.

Our Senior English teacher at JIHS Class of ’64, Mrs. Smithwick who is now Mrs. Cone but we finally feel comfortable enough to call her Sally Lee, the best English teacher a student ever had.


  1. she was my favorite too.most of my papers were covered in red when I got them back,but I managed to pass.things I learned in her class were a big help in college.Thank you Sally Lee.
    Regards,John Jowers

  2. Mine too. I feel like I let her down by not finishing and publishing my novel! Charleen

  3. Rick,
    I loved reading your blog about your high school English teacher, my mom, Sally Cone. It brought tears to my eyes, realizing all the lives she touched, and she had no idea. Ya'll inviting her to your reunion meant the world to her. Thank you, Nance Smithwick

    1. Thank you for your thoughts. It was our pleasure to have our favorite Teacher, not just English teacher, with us on our 50th Reunion. It was so good to see her. Everyone was so happy that she came.She was and ever will be the single most influential teacher we had and we are all happy that she came to JIHS for our senior year. She was a true blessing.