Wednesday, January 09, 2008

The Impact a Great Teacher Has

So in my last post, I was talking about dedications for the upcoming Asphodel books and I mentioned that I would dedicate the second book to some of my high school teachers. These educators taught me the rudiments of what would eventually turn into a writing career. Without them, and the attention they paid to me, I would never have gotten as far as I have. Let me explain.

When I started high school in Clarksville, Tennessee, I was really excited about a particular elective I could take: Latin. I still remember my first day in class, when my best buddies Eddie and Jimmy (twin brothers who now have gravitated to the more mature 'Ed' and 'Jim') sat at our desks, opened our textbooks and looked expectantly at the teacher--Grady Warren. He started us in immediately on conjugations and declensions; our first translation work as I recollect was about a pulchra puella and her frog. Before too long, we were competeing in Junios Classical League events. At state, we garnered quite a few first places between us.

Then came summer. During the summer Grady and his wife Kaye (Dr. Warren, who taught at Clarksville High School) held open house for their students. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, hordes of adolescents descended upon the Warren's house, which was tiny and crammed with books and pets, to study willingly during the hot, humid Tennessee days. On Wednesdays, those of us who were chosen for the certamen (Latin for battle--it's Latin quiz bowl essentially) team that would represent Tennessee at Nationals, would gather to practice in some vicious games to hone our knowledge and our skill. My nickname was fauces, which is Latin for jaws. That should tell you all you need to know about my fledgling personality. We played against the certamen greats of the past: college students who, through love for the Warrens and the language and the game, gave up their summers to serve as our teachers. The Warrens provided the chips, cookies, and cola, the study guides, their home (which had a volleyball court where we played as well) and we, unthinking and completely ignorant of the financial cost of hosting a group of ravenous kids, happily spent our summer vacations learning. We went to Nationals, won numerous chapionships for TJCL, and came back to do it all over the next year.

The other teacher, Kitty Savage, is a bit different. She taught English in the hardcore, old-fashioned way. We thought she was older than dirt and meaner than a snake, with her chain-smoking of unfiltered Camels during breaks and her abrupt, brusque way of instruction. Most all of the kids hated her--except for me. She was our 10th grade teacher, and for some reason she saw something different in me. Mrs. Savage turned out to be a wonderful (if gruff) woman. While she hammered the basics of grammar into our heads, she softened the blow with good books and writing projects. It was when she saw my writing that she took me under her wing. For the rest of my high school education, I'd go over to her house quite often with my mother. As they sat there drinking tea, Mrs. Savage would tell me the most wonderful stories with the sole purpose of expanding a young mind to the great stories in real life that could be told. For example, as a young war bride, she had worked in Oak Ridge, Tennessee on the Manhattan Project. She'd saved all the newspaper clipping in a big album, and I got a bird's eye look at how a young woman lived, worked, and dreamed in the biggest top secret city in the country. She told me a local tale of how a man named William Kelly had invented a cheap, easy process to turn pig iron into steel, and how his British employee stole the secret that eventually came to be called 'the Bessemer process.' She took a girl who spent a lot of time dreaming, and turned her into a hard core researcher who could write a term paper as an epic poem. She, too, sponsored a competition group. She tookd groups of students to state and national History Day competition every year I was in school. She came away with three state champions in Research Papers; twice it was me and both were done as epic poems. She couldn't quite rid herself of my artistic pretensions.

Mrs. Savage is dead now; she died at the age of 92. The Warrens are very much alive, still bringing the joys of the Classics to classes of eager students. One of the twins, actually, is teaching Latin in Clarksville too. Ed married Laura, who was my idol when I was a freshman and she was a senior, and they both teach Latin. When I went home for Christmas, the Warrens' students had a reunion to honor them. I saw people I hadn't seen in twenty years, including the teachers who had impacted me strongly, the older students whose footsteps I'd tried to follow, and the friends my own age who are now doctors and lawyers and teachers in their own right. It was bittersweet in a way, because it felt like we'd never left.

So when someone asks me which profession is the greatest for mankind, I instantly say teachers. I know how mine impacted me, I know how one miserable year of teaching Latin brought me to my knees as a colossal failure, and I know how twenty some odd years later, what they taught me has brought me to my professional destination. Without them, Asphodel (and Darkshifters and Terella and so forth) would not exist. And that's why book two is dedicated to them. Who else, in a book called "The Gift of Redemption" could it be?

Thanks, Grady. Thanks, Kaye. Thanks, Kitty.

It's all YOUR fault!


Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...


I was Google-ing the Warrens, and your blog came up (you may recall I was part of the statewide side show to those mostly intra-Montgomery Co. certamen competitions). I was wondering if they were still teaching since you wrote the original post

Andrew Riggsby

P.S. Wow. Quite the prolific author.