Three Favorite Teachers
—Inspiration and Encouragement
For five of my first seven years of formal schooling, my father was my teacher. That had both good points and bad but has been covered elsewhere. Here I want to talk about some other teachers and the effects they had on my life, especially my long term desire to be a writer.
I had been intimidated by my first grade teacher, Mrs. Pew, although in retrospect, she was very kindly and gentle, though stern if the children did not behave. I did not care for my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Fuller, in the lower grade section of a two-room school. Her pet was her son, who was my age or at least in my grade, and a couple of his cronies and perhaps two girls in the first grade, twins and cute little blondes. I got the feeling she did not like me, but could be wrong. At that stage, I was pretty self-centered.
After that came three years with Dad again and finally a huge change to a middle school or junior high where my eighth grade took place. There we shared space with the high school and had most of the same teachers, a different one for each subject. That was quite a change but I did not mind it after the first week or two.
I had a couple of favorite teachers that year. Mrs Manley taught art and was the mother of the notable photographer Ray Manley. She was very sweet and pleasant and I enjoyed her class. Art was my second interest after writing, really. English, already a favorite subject of mine, was taught by a very unique lady, Miss Rayle. At that point the use of Ms. was just coming into the vocabulary and she made a emphatic point that she was not Ms but Miss and proud of it. I believe she was in her early to middle sixties, about five foot five or so and rather square built, an impression enhanced by her choice of attire.
She probably had more than the two but as I recall she wore on alternate weeks a dark blue suit and a brown suit with a crisp white shirtwaist blouse, perhaps touched with a tiny bit of lace or ruffles and some tucks in the front. The suits were very mannish in cut with a straight skirt that fell well below the knee and a jacket exactly like a man’s suit coat but with the buttons reversed. “Granny shoes”, clunky laced oxfords with perhaps an inch or two of heel, completed her ‘look’. She sported a Brillo pad of curly iron gray hair, which I suspect was natural.
Miss Rayle loved the English language and English literature of all kinds with an abiding passion. Although she did her best to instill the same regard in all her students, many of them were not buying it. I did. Oh, I was not terribly fond of diagramming sentences on the blackboard—this was a device that my dad had never used—but I caught on quickly and could soon fix the errors made by others.
At that time I had decided to go by Margaret—an affectation I soon regretted and dropped when I could. But I would often hear, “Margaret, can you fix the sentence that Robert (or Helen or someone else) has mangled?” And I would dutifully do so.
Miss Rayle, who had also announced that her given name was Blanche Elizabeth, was Irish and proud of it. She had the wicked Irish sense of humor and flair for puns and sarcasm; I caught those traits very quickly since I shared them to some degree. She also greatly loved poetry. We were tasked to compile a little anthology of poems as one of our projects. I chose several favorites and included a few of my own writing since I had by then been penning verses for several years. That project got me an “A” and when I confessed I was also starting to write some stories, she seemed delighted and told me that was an excellent project.
I also had her for my freshman year and continued in much the same vein. Sad to say that was her final year of teaching as I believe she retired. I think she left the area and went back to somewhere farther east, perhaps
New York or New England
where she’d grown up and maybe still had family. However, Miss Rayle had left a
permanent mark on me.
My sophomore year I had a new young teacher named Mrs. Norris for awhile but she got pregnant and at that time, impressionable teenagers were not to be exposed to anyone in “the family way” so she left after the first semester. I cannot even recall who took her place but neither of them left much of an impression on me. Mrs. Norris had earned my enmity but giving me a “B” the first report card because I had balked a bit about some complex conjugations of verbs and not done well with them. I was spoiled to being a pet and prodigy in my chosen subjects such as English, History, Geography and such. A “B”? That was intolerable!
Then I was out of school for a year. When I returned to start my junior year, the school had grown by consolidation and many new teachers had joined the faculty. In fact many of the old ones had left, either retiring or going elsewhere. I got the impression that the new Superintendent had brought in a new crew, perhaps recruited from wherever he had been before.
In the fall of 1960, The English Department of Mingus Union High consisted mainly of two young men just getting established in their teaching careers. Ernest Gabrielson was a classic nerd, already with a very high forehead at thirty years old or less. He had a droll sense of humor and a sincere love of language and literature so we hit it off pretty well. James McLarney was the product of Catholic schools, tended to try to be strict but was also an Irish smart-ass. He could flay you with sly words so you were on the floor bleeding before you even caught on—especially if you were slow, literal or easily intimidated. I was not so we fared well enough.
Both of these chaps were aspiring writers so I hit it off with them. Besides the regular English classes, McLarney was in charge of the yearbook and Gabrielson the school newspaper. I got involved with both those projects. I was editor of the paper my senior year, and enjoyed that so much I considered a career in journalism for awhile.
When I found late in my senior year that I was to be valedictorian, it was McLarney who directed and vetted my speech. I was allowed to say pretty much what I chose, but he corrected a few things and made suggestions, most of which I followed. I guess it was a decent speech; I recall some compliments on it afterwards although I was so stoned on Darvon that I do not remember much about the experience. I’d had a tooth pulled not long before and took advantage of the extra meds to calm my normal stage fright and extreme timidity about speaking. They did help.
Both teachers wrote in my senior year book with encouragement to continue to write and perhaps go into teaching. I did the one but not the other. I had decided some years before, having been born into a family full of teachers, I was not cut out for a career in education. I am glad I made the choice early!
As a final note, I’ll mention one of those strange Celtic knot coincidences. When I starting work at
and then moved
to Bisbee, I began to keep company with the man I later married. Once I mentioned a former
teacher named Gabrielson and Jim’s ears perked up at once. We compared notes a
few minutes and I discovered that my old English teacher had been a friend and classmate
of my husband’s when they were going to Fort
Years later, we met several times with Ernest (by then I used his first name!)
and his wife Carroll at reunions of both our schools. It was amusing to compare
notes and discuss the oddly shared past. Bisbee High School
Both McLarney and Gabrielson did eventually write and publish. McLarney wrote a modern drama version of the Greek tragedy Antigone and his drama class at Mingus put it on several times. I think he had it published and likely some other things. Gabrielson wrote a couple of mystery novels set in Bisbee which were published as well. However, I think my career overtook both of them since I have had several articles, a number of works of fiction and one book of poetry published. I hope these three teachers look back from wherever they may be now and are pleased at what their influence wrought. I did take it to heart and have done my best to honor the encouragement and guidance they provided. Although I am glad I did not teach, it must be rewarding to have even a student or two credit part of their success or achievement to your influence. I will not have that experience.