"A teacher affects eternity: he can never tell where his influence stops."
Henry Adams

In Honor of Mrs. Miriam Thompson
English Teacher Extraordinaire

Our parents give us life and try to raise us as best they can. Nobody needs - or, in fact, has – perfect parents. All one needs are parents that pay attention to their children and do the best they can. Those were my parents. I have no real complaints with how they raised me. I am most grateful to Richard John and Margaret Mary Geib, and I hope to be half the parent they were. In so many ways they were the very best of parents.

But as a boy or girl gets older, a young person acquires needs that parents alone cannot deliver. Especially in adolescence, a young adult requires attention and instruction from adults other than their parents. It is a cliché but no less true for being so that “it takes a village to raise a child.” Somehow when a person reaches 15 years of age the parents lose sway over their child. Other adults must move into the breach.

The Puritans knew this about adolescence. They loved their children so much they feared they would be incapable of being strict enough with them. In the Puritan worldview, a young person whose unruly will remained unbroken and never acquired strict religious discipline was a person whose soul would forever burn in hell – such a child was lost forever! So they sent their children to live with other adults who could give them the strong structure and unwavering discipline they needed. They did this out of love. They would have preferred to keep their precious children at home, but painful as it was they sent their children away for their own good during adolescence.

There is much wisdom in that.

There is great love in sacrificing one’s own comfort for the greater and long-term good of one’s children, and all parents do this to some degree. But a parent – even the best parent – needs help in raising a child. A young person needs the help and attention of a wide gamut of persons from the community. You cannot put it all on the parent, although the parent has the primary responsibility. Teachers, coaches, police officers, ministers, bus drivers, store clerks – there is no end to the adults that come into contact with a young person, and they are all parent figures, after a fashion.

I received much from such the adults in my life when I was a teenager. My track and cross country coaches saw and spoke to me almost as much as did my parents, and I learned much about discipline, character, team work, and even friendship. But I would like to speak about my English teacher, Mrs. Thompson. I will never forget her, and I will always be in her debt.

my high school English teacher,
Mrs. Miriam Thompson

Mrs. Thompson was the “mean” teacher who taught the advanced English classes at Corona del Mar High School when I was there in the mid-1980s. Actually, she was more “hard” than “mean,” but I remembered she was older and very much a veteran teacher. She was all business and I don’t remember her ever smiling very much. She taught the advanced classes (although I was not in one of them with her) and much of that obviously bled into her lower level classes. One immediately understood that Mrs. Thompson was not your friend, your parent, your babysitter, or your confidante. She was the teacher, and her business was to teach you to read and write. I remember her at times being social with the class, but she was a serious lady who was almost always all business.

Mrs. Thompson was my 11th grade American literature teacher. We would read a book, discuss the themes and conflicts, work on the vocabulary, and other common “English-teacher stuff.” None of that was terribly difficult, or even terribly interesting. We read Moby Dick, Death of a Salesman, Ethan Frome, The Taming of the Shrew, A Farewell to Arms, and The Great Gatsby. The books themselves were awesome, and just having the opportunity to read them was worth the price of admittance. Henry David Thoreau once wrote, “How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book?” Indeed!

But what I most remember about and most benefited from in Mrs. Thompson’s course were in the in class essays. At the end of a month or so reading some famous book she would drop an essay prompt on your desk and announce that she would collect our answers in 50 minutes. The entire class held its breath in terror as she passed out the essay prompt, and the stress and pressure when I first read the essay question was extreme. “Oh my God, what kind of impossible question is she going to ask now?” The questions were probing and difficult, and there always hid in the back of one’s mind the possibility that one would not be able to answer it. I would read the essay question and my mind would race back to the book, and I would sweat blood to conceive what might be my answer to the question.

I would sometimes spend up to 15 minutes just thinking and making notes to myself while those around me scribbled page after page of one paragraph blurring into another. The classroom was deathly silent, with the only sound the scratching of pen on paper. I would jot a sentence or two down to myself, and then revise a bit from there. You could have put a gun to my head and probably I would not have noticed. Finally, nearing the halfway mark for the essay I would have my “thesis” – my full answer to the essay prompt boiled down to one strong sentence.

One would think I would be almost panicked, as I had hardly written anything down and time was running out fast! But at this point I actually relaxed, knowing success was at hand: I now knew what I was going to say, knew what the answer was. I had the answer in my mind to the prompt and could justify it with evidence from the text. The next twenty-five minutes I would write furiously down in words what was already in my mind. I was writing as quickly as I could but I was relaxed. I had a roadmap of where I was going in my mind, and I knew where I was going. Game over.

I don’t think I ever thought harder in high school than I did during the first portion of those in class writing assignments, when I strove to develop an answer to Mrs. Thompson’s dreaded essay questions. The first five minutes or so were always the worse! But even worse than that were the moments just before she passed out the prompts, as we students sat there in terror waiting. But how I learned to love the intense challenge of those writing jousts, where I was pushed to the very limit and challenged in a way no teacher had ever challenged me before. I would be challenged this way routinely in college. I would be ready.

I learned everything I needed to know about how to write an expository essay in Mrs. Thompson’s class. Later in college, on job applications, for teacher qualification exams, in graduate school, to show my own students, I would write many, many more of these essays and I never found them overwhelming or impossible. Read the prompt carefully, develop a clear answer, garner supporting evidence, watch the clock carefully, and write as elegantly, incisively, and quickly as possible. Simple! I walked out of Mrs. Thompson class in June of 1984 with those skills. I owe her for having had only the highest expectations for my writing and challenging me to do nothing less than college-level work. Indeed she put the bar up high, where it belonged. Time and time again I would be challenged to prove or explain myself in writing. I was prepared. I was ready.

In retrospect Mrs. Thompson taught me more how to think than how to write, as the one is inextricably linked to the other. In expecting nothing less than my best writing and reasoning, she helped me to make breakthroughs in my thinking. If her expectations had been lower, if she had not put me in a “do or die” situation, if she had developed a less challenging curriculum, I might not have made those breakthroughs. As a high school junior, she gave me what I needed.

I had plenty of mediocre and a few execrable teachers in high school. But I had one or two outstanding ones, and I needed no more than that.

Mrs. Thompson was a realist in her practices, but her ministrations were idealist, unbeknownst to her. She was a realist in that she clearly laid out her units of study, directly taught the literature and led discussions, and authored difficult prompts that tested a student’s knowledge of the literature and ability to analyze and explain. She was a veteran teacher who had thought out her curriculum over decades, and the Advanced Placement experience helped her always to design and deliver challenging yet fair writing prompts; all this I see clearly thirty years later, as an AP English teacher myself now. Mrs. Thompson did not wax eloquent on the beauty of literature or expound on the transformative nature of writing. She was all business as a teacher. Mrs. Thompson did not plead with us to do our best, but she would unceremoniously flunk us if we did not. We all knew that.

There was the novel; this is what you want to look out for; there is the final assessment in an essay question; here is your grade for this unit. Mrs. Thompson was a very “traditional” teacher - a “realist.” The essays she demanded we write had to be paragons of a reasonably proposed message, supported by an orderly procession of supporting evidence and analysis. Sloppiness in grammar, mediocrity in diction, and laziness of thought would not be tolerated. Mrs. Thompson knew what would be required of us in college in terms of expository prose; she provided opportunities to learn what would be needed in the future for us in the real world. If I learned how to write and explain in her class, more importantly I learned how to reason and think. In real life, these were lifelong skills.

But Mrs. Thompson was also an idealist in her effects on me. Through her class, I was able to gain a vision of what it really meant to be the educated person I might want to become as an adult. I discovered that the harder the class, the more I would try in it; my best grades have always been in the most challenging classes that stretched me, my worst in the easiest ones I found to be a waste of time. If excited by an intense teacher and challenged by a scope of study, wild horses could not stop me. If bored and unchallenged, I would look into the teacher’s eyes stubbornly and do nothing. Mrs. Thompson had much to do with how ideally I came to view what an education should be. She lit some of my enthusiasm for learning, and later, for teaching.

If I am in many ways a dissimilar English teacher to Mrs. Thompson, I similarly hope to give students the tools they need to survive the challenges of post-high school life. I routinely give my Advanced Placement students this end-of-year benediction:

“I hope that no matter how hard you may find some professor in college, that you will never find one who is so hard that your high school writing preparation can be found unsatisfactory. Go forth and do great things! You are ready!”

I owe much to Mrs. Thompson, and I try to repay that debt to my own students almost daily.

Mrs. Thompson passed away before I could thank her properly, or tell her that I too had become an AP English teacher, but it matters not – the story continues, and I carry on where she stopped. Certainly some of my students one day will go on to become teachers while most will become parents, and I will have played my small part in the drama. Such is how one generation learns from the next in the march of humanity, as Socrates taught Plato who taught Aristotle on down to our own times - civilization communicating itself from the past to the present to the future. As author Will Durant proclaimed: "We announce the prologue, and retire; after us better players will come.”

"Non schola sed vita decimos!"