Friday, September 18, 2009

A fond farewell

I am making an exception here and posting a column I have written for the Claremont Courier. I want to pay tribute to one of my best teachers, who recently died.

Shortly after I came out to her almost ten years ago, Ms. S gave me a lecture on safe sex. In a letter, she shared with me the joy of finding love, but she also went on at considerable length about the gay men she had known who had died from AIDS and said, several times, "Be careful!"
It was decades after I had been in her English class at El Roble Intermediate School, where she taught for years, and Carol Schowalter, who I affectionately called Ms. S, was still teaching me. In later years, after she retired, she would, with her exquisite calligraphy, comment on my COURIER columns, sometimes quite sternly. She reminded me to always, always write from a place of kindness and compassion.
The fact that we were still in touch, that she was still instructing me and I was still telling her details about my life, spoke volumes (an appropriate metaphor, for she clearly adored books, handling them and even breaking their backs with the utmost of care, even reverence). Now that Ms. Schowalter has died, I will miss even this occasional caring and guidance, even if I didn’t seek it out.
I think that, if Ms. S had not told me soon after I landed in her class, I would have guessed that she had been trained as a minister. I and literally thousands of other Claremont junior high school students had the gift of her genuine, deep caring and her warm, heartfelt wisdom. We also knew and loved her as a natural born teacher.
And the terror that she often was.
Ms. Schowalter was (and still is) a Claremont legend. Even before I entered her classroom, I had heard stories about how hard she was, about the endless homework she assigned and the elaborate, torturous project she had her students do. She was known as a teacher that students love even while, or more likely after, hating her class.
Sort of like what I heard someone say about writing: I love having written.
I soon found out that the legend was very much true. Before I knew it, I was doing the infamous Student Dictionary - two words a day, which I had to copy from the black board, then define, write sentences with and find used in outside sources (newspapers, magazines, novels, television shows, etc.). I will never forget the words being there day after day, like widgets on an endless conveyer belt, and, almost teasingly, in that elegant calligraphy and with amusing sentences featuring names such as Mortimer and Gladys. Then there were the crazy book report projects - a simple book report was never enough for Ms. S - on top of weekly spelling tests, lots of essays, memorizing all of the prepositions, learning the difference between a metaphor and a simile and all the usual English class stuff.
I have to admit that I botched one project, but Miss Schowalter did teach me to work hard - or even harder - and to appreciate and indeed love how an author such as Carson McCullers can have quite a distinctive style of writing. Even when I slid, she saw not only my potential but also that I was more likely than not to fulfill it.
This was, I soon saw, a good thing. If Miss Schowalter had any fault as a teacher, it is that she really did not suffer fools or laggards gladly - or at all. I witnessed her talking to several boys who had misbehaved or goofed off, and not only was it not pretty, I’m not sure if any of them were in her class much longer. And watch out - even the star pupils - if Ms. S had a cold or wasn’t feeling well!
She was also fiercely proud of her work. When I told her that one of my previous teachers had used her idea for teaching Greek mythology, she was not amused in the least.
But the fact is that Miss Schowalter was one of the hardest working teachers I have known, and she expected the same from her students. Furthermore, in a special and fascinating way, I was almost as much of a challenge to her as she was to me.
I was in the first class of orthopedically handicapped students at El Roble, back when Danbury was still a school, and, out of that class, I was the first to be mainstreamed into a "regular" class. Miss Schowalter’s seventh grade English class was the one in which I was placed. I suspect this was a gamble carefully considered by all involved, and I have no doubt that she saw it as an interesting little challenge and eagerly took it on. It was interesting, to say the least, with me, a severely disabled boy in a wheelchair, lugging a typewriter (this was way before laptops) to class each day - and who knew how to understand my speech? (Being among the first disabled students in this most bratty of environments was itself quite a challenge, but that’s another story.)
So Ms. S and I both definitely dived into deep, sometimes cold, waters, and I think we both tried our damnedest to swim and make this grand experiment work. I know that, even when I flubbed, I worked my ass off for her. For her part, she always asked me questions about my life and its challenges and tried to hear my answers, even as she added more challenges. Again, she saw my potential - and helped me be sure of it.
For years after I left El Roble, I would drop by her classroom - like the institution it was, it never changed - to visit Ms. S. Even when she was tired or said she didn’t have time to talk, she was very interested to hear about my progress in high school and college, where I majored in English, and, later, downright intrigued to hear about my writing, living independently and theater work. "You haven’t forgotten old lady Schowalter," she would say.
No, I hadn’t. And I delighted in meeting Mel, the love of her life, at long last (she could indeed relate to my finally coming out at 39), who she soon married, and I loved hearing how she and Mel and Mel’s wife had been good friends for years until his wife died. It was right out of a novel, the literature that
she so cherished, and although I never heard Ms. S speak of Jane Austen, I’m sure she would have delighted in my referencing this particular novelist when it came to the courtship and marriage. I liked to think of them as "CarolMel."
And now, just as a new school year is starting, Ms. S is gone, leaving us to remember and honor her dedication to and passion for teaching hard work and good reading and writing. How appropriate! How literary! She would love it.

1 comment:

  1. Very sweet remembrances, John. Makes me think of some of my favorite teachers--and those who worked me hardest because they saw a diamond-in-the-rough that I myself could not see....

    Liz Opp(enheimer), The Good Raised Up