Teachers, and lessons, we'll never forget

Every year about this time, as high school seniors cram for finals and wait impatiently for their cap-and-gown moment of glory, I think about Miss Johnson, my senior-year English teacher.

Tall and imposing, with angular features, graying hair, and a tight smile, she took particular delight in her well-earned reputation as a "hard" teacher. She was not there to be loved. She was there to teach, and to prepare us for what lay ahead: demanding professors.

"When you get to college, you'll thank me for this," she intoned again and again, wagging her long index finger at us as she handed out yet another time-consuming assignment. She spoke proudly of grateful former students who came back to express appreciation for the preparation and grounding she had given them.

We didn't want to believe her, and we groaned at the research papers she assigned. "Footnotes?" we grumbled privately. "An annotated bibliography? She's gotta be kidding."

But she wasn't kidding. And she was right, of course. Sure enough, when we scattered across the country to our chosen schools, legions of professors were waiting to give us just the kind of intellectual workouts she described. Only then did we silently thank Miss Johnson. We realized we were better prepared because of her.

Call it delayed appreciation, this belated acceptance of the valuable lessons embedded in particular assignments or requests. In countless situations, someone demands more than we want to give or more than we think we are capable of doing, and it turns out to be a gift.

In the case of Miss Johnson, beneath her sometimes chilly exterior beat the heart of a dedicated teacher who loved literature, good writing, and stimulating ideas. She encouraged us to read Harper's Magazine and The Atlantic Monthly. She introduced us to small literary magazines we had never heard of. She even doled out praise when it was due.

Ask friends and relatives about the Miss Johnsons they remember in their lives - the men and women who imposed difficult rules or made unpopular requests - and the answers are richly varied. The taskmaster emblazoned in a businessman's memory, for example, might be a high school football coach who put his team through grueling practices, stretching their endurance in ways they didn't think possible.

For others, Miss Johnson might have taken the form of a mother who offered gentle daily reminders (OK, sometimes it sounded like nagging) to practice the piano. Those long-ago music students with modest talent will never play Carnegie Hall, but as adults they know the satisfaction that comes from sitting down at the keys now and then.

Still other respondents might recall the useful, if sometimes uncomfortable, lessons they learned from a stern but loving grandfather, or from an Army officer in basic training, or from a mentor during an internship.

The Miss Johnsons of this world even help to shape the lives of those who become famous. One long-ago biographer of George Washington Carver told of a woman who, seeing potential in the boy who had been orphaned as a baby, asked him to clean a cluttered space. He knew little about order and felt overwhelmed by the task. But somehow, he prevailed. Who knows what later successes had their modest roots in that early victory?

It's easy to romanticize these lessons decades later, forgetting the anguish or annoyance at the time. But as the strains of "Pomp and Circumstance" float through the spring air, honoring another graduating class, they serve as reminders of all the unheralded, underappreciated Miss Johnsons everywhere, both in and out of the classroom.

To them, and to those in every walk of life who, knowingly or not, pass along invaluable lessons and leave invisible legacies, thanks are due - and often long overdue.

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