Saturday, June 16, 2012
I was still in middle school when my older brother started coming home raving about all the great things he was learning in his new Humanities class from “Helen and Bob.” My brother, an extraordinarily smart young man in whose mind very little was deemed comment-worthy, was thoroughly enamored. I, looking up to him as I did (though I’d have denied it to my last breath back then), couldn’t wait until I got to high school and could take Helen and Bob’s Humanities class. I had no idea what “Humanities” referred to, but I knew I wanted to take the class.
I was fortunate enough to have Helen – or Ms. B (I never was quite as forward as my brother) – as my English teacher in addition to taking the Humanities class she team-taught with Bob. She was known for pushing her students hard, making them do a little more, a little faster, and a little better than they thought they could. Her special mix of tough, comical, intense, wistful, wise, and hard-driving made her one of the best teachers I’ve ever had. The addition of an undeniable and genuine enthrallment with the art, poetry, or literature she was teaching made her my favorite teacher ever. And I’m definitely not alone.
I owe Ms. B a lot of things. I am still known, on occasion, to tell people “you don’t need to have a point to have a point” (this befuddles them every time). During my junior year of college, studying abroad in Paris and having gotten my hands on a year-long pass to the Louvre, I would sit at the feet of the Winged Victory of Samothrace, writing letters to my mom or my friends, looking up from time to time to study the statue, echoing Ms. B’s “ahhhh.” She and Bob are the reasons the names Khufu, Khafre, and Menkure pop into my head every time I see a photo of Egypt’s pyramids. Ditto with Ur, Uruk, and Lagash, whenever someone mentions certain parts of Iraq (happens more often than you might think). Many a museum visit has been made exponentially more meaningful because of that Humanities class, from seeing the Stele of the Law Code of Hammurabi to gazing at the frescoes by Giotto in Florence’s Santa Croce, Vermeer‘s scenes of Dutch domesticity, Degas‘ dancers, or Georges de la Tour’s exquisitely wrought candlelight. She’s the reason I know what a “Pre-Raphaelite” is, and why I have a special fondness for this painting. Ms. B is the reason I have never, ever, written the word “alot” (until now, and she’d probably still try to have my head for calling it a word). She’s also probably a large part of the reason that I have been so successful with my writing in my current job; her standards were high, and so mine are too. She’s the reason I still tell myself and others, “Say it three times and it’s yours.” And she’s the reason that, after all these years, I not only went out of my way last month to visit Canterbury Cathedral, but annoyed my companions by reciting the entire “General Prologue” to the Canterbury Tales, in the original Middle English.
Ms. B is retiring this year. It’s a great loss to the students who haven’t had the chance to experience that special thing that is a class of Helen’s, but she has made a profound and positive difference in more people’s lives than most of us can hope to make in multiple lifetimes. There is a retirement party this week, and you can bet if I weren’t three timezones away and not independently wealthy, I’d make darned sure I was there to show my appreciation. As it is, I can only say from afar, “Happy retirement, Ms. B., and my door – wherever it may happen to be located – will always be open should you get bit by the travel bug.”