Thank you, my teachers.
You endeavored alchemy
on our feckless minds.
Notes: When I was growing up in my small Missouri farm town, we were blessed with an amazing collection of teachers in our public schools. So many of them were serious educators who saw teaching as a calling.
Just the other day, as I was flipping through an old high school yearbook, I found a loose print of this photo stuck in between the pages. I’m sure I had seen it before, but it must have been more than 45 years ago.
It’s the only photo I have of two of the most influential teachers in my life.
John Hudnall and Dorothy Van Meter are riding in the 1969 Marshall High School Homecoming Parade as part of the Faculty Pep Squad. They were good sports. (I have no recollection what the deathlike character in the foreground is supposed to represent. Possibly the defeat of our football opponent, perhaps.)
Finding that photo prompted a little meditation about what those two teachers meant to me.
John must have seen some very well hidden potential in me and named me editor of the high school year book. He sent my fellow editor, Marilyn Doyle Crawford, and I to a journalism summer camp at the University of Missouri, where I got my first taste using good design to tell a story in print.
We came back from that camp and proceeded to lead a great yearbook team in publishing a book that told the story of our schoolmates during our turbulent senior year.
Little did I know that, years later, I would earn my living doing pretty much the same thing. For my entire career, I’ve been a professional story-teller. First as a journalist, then as a writer and creative director, with a little poetry on the side.
Dorothy also had a profound effect on my life — not in the professional arena, but in my personal life. She was the type of teacher who seemed to be always looking for ways to inspire her students to think deeper, push harder, and become better human beings. She would hold intellectual salons in her living rooms where past and present students would gather to discuss ideas, art, and literature, and debate philosophy.
It was heady stuff for a hayseed kid like myself, just a few years removed from the farm.
She took an interest in me and recommended two books, which I think she prescribed to correct what she diagnosed as deficiencies in my soul.
First, she said I should get a book on yoga and do the exercises. This may have partly been because I was a bit of a muscle-bound jock, with no sense of the mystical.
Then, she handed me her own hardback copy of Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. She also likely sensed that I was spiritually ignorant and morally vulnerable. And she would have been correct.
By age 17, I had pretty much sloughed off the simple Christian faith of my parents. I had embraced the ideas that Freud and Darwin had rendered faith obsolete, and I thought God was dead, whatever that meant.
Dorothy could probably tell I was headed for treacherous moral waters when I left home for college. The counterculture was peaking right at that time. The siren call of sex, drugs, and rock & roll was beckoning.
At first, I paid far more attention to paperback book on hatha yoga I purchased off the rack at the local Red Cross Drug Store. I stretched my muscles, did the poses, and read other books about the masters. When I went to college, I signed up for meditation classes, studied Eastern philosophy, and tried my best to become a Hindu. Alas, it was much too difficult.
It turned out that Screwtape Letters would play a more profound role in my life. I read it right away, and then promptly tried to forget it. But Lewis’s vivid fictional portrayal of correspondence between a senior devil and his nephew, a junior tempter, stuck with me.
All that stuff about a spiritual world with an ancient foe seeking to work us ill couldn’t be true. Could it??!
But sure enough, after a year and a half of dissipation at college, I faced a spiritual crisis. I had the distinct impression God was after me like a coon hound hot on the trail. When I hit bottom, the first thought I had was to turn to Lewis for help in trying to figure out what was happening to me. So I reread Screwtape, and it scared the willies out of me. Then, I ran to the library and started devouring Lewis’s other books.
Here was a guy who was as smart — actually smarter — than my professors. His Mere Christianity all of a sudden made perfect sense to me, and made faith intellectually acceptable. Though as providential series of events, I came to faith in Jesus. And that has been the most important event in my life.
Needless to say, I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for Screwtape Letters.
These were just two of the influential teachers. I’ve written before about some of the others: Paul Hagedorn for fanning the flames of poetry back in 11th grade English class. Coaches Cecil Naylor and Wayne O’Neal for teaching us how to win. Mary Lou Porter and Marie Connell for turning us on to Shakespeare.
Margaret Buie for opening up the ancient world through Latin. David Washburn for inspiring creativity through theater. And Billy Bob Stith and Catherine Kennedy for making math and science interesting even to a right-brain guy like myself.
I’m not sure if these wonderful educators have been replaced by teachers equally as dedicated or not. My hope is that kids today would have the chance to be taught by such as the likes of them.