To English Teachers


Today I happened to find out that my 12th grade English teacher just recently passed away. Even though my senior year was an astonishing mumbleteen years ago, some aspects of that class I remember well.

When I was in school, there was significant “churn” among the ranks of the teachers. Inexperienced graduates with shiny new teaching degrees would arrive, teach for a year, and burn out. Many teachers were first-year teachers, substitute teachers, and people who preferred to be called “Coach”.

Mrs. Loggins was not among these. Already near the end of a long teaching career at my high school (she retired only a couple years after I graduated), she was well-known for teaching English and Yearbook.

What do I remember from her “English Lit” class?

Memorization

We memorized nineteen lines from the prologue to “The Canterbury Tales”. We memorized five stanzas from “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. (Which five stanzas? That was up to us — though virtually everyone included “water, water, everywhere…”)

To those who grew up in the Google Age, such memorization assignments may seem to be of dubious value. Not so — we engaged each other to practice, with groups of us rehearsing “Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote…” before and after class. Our group-study skills were the better for it.

What I memorized has also stuck with me more than anything that I read without any memorization. Even now at the age of mumblety-something, I recall several of Chaucer’s stories, as well as the themes of spirituality and oneness with nature that Coleridge wrote.

(And I still remember reciting my chosen stanzas of “Rime”, only to stumble at the beginning of the fifth. Without missing a beat or looking at the textbook, Mrs. Loggins prompted me with the next line. I finished it… and realized that even though we grumbled about memorizing five stanzas, she must have memorized the whole poem.)

Do better

Although it must be difficult to give personal attention to every student in a class of thirty, I remember several isolated incidents where she cracked the metaphorical whip over me. One comes immediately to mind.

Sitting in the hallway one morning before class, reading whichever novel was assigned this particular week, I noticed Mrs. Loggins walking down the hallway. As most students might do, I kept my head down, pretending to read, in hopes she would not notice me.

She must have noticed my lack of attention to the book from twenty yards away. As she passed me in the hallway, without missing a step she simply commented, “read faster, Phillip.”

No one dies of embarrassment

As a student, I was painfully shy, and typically froze up in front of groups. In the past I had been known to stand silently at the front of the class until an exasperated teacher told me to sit down, or simply tell the teacher that I would rather accept an ‘F’ grade than stand up.

As we prepared for the dreaded AP English Literature exam, she assigned us various sample prompts for practice. One of my prompts was a standard: Stirling Brown’s poem, “Southern Cop”. I wrote a short-form essay analysing the apologetic nature of the poem…

…which she proceeded to read aloud to the entire class, as I slumped down in my seat, wishing I could melt through the floor and disappear. No one dies of embarrassment, but at the time I wished I could.

All things pass

After all, I somehow passed Mrs. Loggins’ English Lit class. But in a larger sense, everyone in that class stood before a literal and figurative fin de siècle. A century and a millennium were ending — and so was our high school experience.

This was reflected in the poetry we read: “Ozymandias”, “In Flanders Fields”, “Fire and Ice”. If there was a life lesson in these, it was that the world consists of endings.

But most of all, I will never forget the wistfulness in her voice one class period. She sighed, and told us that she thought of this as “Mrs. Loggins’ poem.” Then she read aloud a poem from our textbook. It was a poem clearly near and dear to her heart.

It was a poem of faded beauty.

Conclusion

This is not meant to slight any of the other teachers I had in high school, including the other English teachers. Mrs. Loggins was one among many memorable high school teachers, of whom I have countless half-remembered stories and faulty memories.

Nor is this really a tribute to Mrs. Loggins. I did not know her outside of class. I ran into her only once after graduation, and now will obviously never do so again. I am not her biographer: I cannot speak of her early years, her later life, or her role in the community.

Selfish as this may sound, this is simply a chance to wear the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia, to look back on my personal experience in her class, and to recognize that her teaching career must have comprised hundreds — thousands — of students, each of whom had his own unique experience spending a semester seated at a desk in the English hallway, hoping to pass Mrs. Loggins’ class.

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