Good teachers

I had good teachers, and remember two [of] the best: Mr. Olson, who gave me a love of history, and the inestimable Rhoda Hansen, who coached speech and debate. To the callow student who drew her for English, she must have seemed like a bemused bird of prey; to those of us who had her for a coach, she was the ultimate authority on the superficial aspects of our craft. How to stand. How to walk. How to gesture. She was also the one who tore apart our arguments and built them back up, taught us to construct a thesis, rebut on the fly and think on our feet, act like junior Barrymores, deliver a humorous speech or a tearjerking monologue, then head over to the Extemporaneous Speaking round and whip a defense of Israel or the 55-MPH speed limit out of our own heads in 15 minutes. She had a sense of sarcasm sharp enough to shave granite in micrometer-thin slices. When you got one of her exfoliating critiques you felt it down to the bone, and when she reacted to your humorous speech with her dry smoker’s cackle – the tenth time she’d heard it! – you were on top of the world. She treated us all like grown-ups who’d unaccountably ended up in high school, but she wasn’t our peer and she wasn’t our pal; if we doubted her authority, it took one arched eyebrow to bat us back into place. She expected victory and she got it. She loved us and we loved her. She was the most important teacher of my life.

I sat at my desk in the motel; I cracked the window. I made a pot of coffee. I got out the phone book. I had a cup, collected my thoughts, dialed the number, and wondered why I felt so oddly nervous. Well, because it was Mrs. Hansen, that’s why.

She was pleased I’d called. She read the column; she’d kept up. She was happy I’d done well. I told her what I wrote above, more or less. I felt 15 again. I felt like I should be standing in front of her desk, hands clasped behind my back (the reverse fig-leaf position, she’d called it) while she gave me a critique of my career since leaving her charge. She was dismissive of her impact – why, I had so much energy and so many ideas, I was easy to teach – but I had to set her straight on that. She gave me confidence and craft, without which energy and ideas just fizz away. I will always owe you everything.

We said goodbye. I closed the phone and put it on the desk and looked at it. Damn.

What took me so long to do that.

The Trip Home, Con’t.” by James Lileks, The Bleat, July 26, 2006