Remembering that very special schoolteacher
Washington — I have been blessed with so many excellent teachers during my days of growing up in Virginia that I truly find it difficult to write easily about my ''best'' or my ''favorite'' teacher.
But among the wonderful teachers I have had, the teacher I shall absolutely never forget is Elizabeth Jordan.
Now Miss Jordan was not a particularly attractive person - as ''attraction'' is so often measured these days. I can see her now, tall and thin, her long, plain-looking face framed by her gray hair, severely pulled back. She taught us English in the 11th grade at the old Dunbar High School in Lynchburg, Va., where all the black kids went to school.
Miss Jordan was strict, but she was also very caring, and that caring shined through her strictness. She drilled us and drilled us on how to diagram sentences.
''Now, Mary,'' I can remember her saying, ''what is the object of the verb? What is the indirect object? Where are you going to place that adjective? Why?''
But Miss Jordan went far beyond drill. She opened the doors to a wider world for us: Chaucer and Shakespeare, Greek mythology, and American poetry.
How well I remember those quiet afternoons when Miss Jordan would read to us across the pages of time. Our room was so still you could hear the jays chirping outside. Miss Jordan read on and on, holding us all entranced. I would lose myself in the imagery of the scenes. It was, invariably, a shock ''coming back'' to Dunbar High after those magic trips to far-off places.
I remember when Miss Jordan read William Cullen Bryant's ''Thanatopsis'' to us and explained its eternal message. I remember understanding ''Oedipus Rex'' for the first time. I remember, too, Poe's raven, still sitting, perched upon that ''bust of Pallas just above my chamber door/ Perched and sat, and nothing more.''
Miss Jordan was nobody's ''easy teacher.'' I was a talker in class, and one day my talking was too much for Miss Jordan. She had me stay after school and told me to write an essay on education and American enterprise. As a skinny, bony little kid in quiet, conservative Lynchburg, I had never thought about the philosophical underpinnings of that particular concept. I just knew that Miss Jordan wanted an essay right then and there, and I set about to do it.
I had to write that essay five times, five times for Miss Jordan. First, she didn't think much of the format, the order of my thoughts, and how I had turned them into paragraphs. Then she had me rewrite the essay because of its grammar errors. Then I had to do it a third time because of all the misspelled words, and a fourth time, said Miss Jordan, because of its faulty ''structure.'' Finally, it wasn't neat, and that meant a fifth rewrite.
Why couldn't Miss Jordan have covered all those points the first time? I don't know. That just wasn't Miss Jordan's way, and I'm not sorry about it today.
It was not until months later that I learned that Miss Jordan had submitted my essay as an entry in some sort of citywide contest for high school kids and that it had won a prize. She announced it to the class at a time when I was busy talking - again - to a schoolmate.
''Didn't you hear what Miss Jordan just said?'' asked one of my classmates.
''No, what?'' At that moment Miss Jordan's eyes were fixed upon me in a beady gaze - she often used just her eyes and tone of voice to control a class - and she repeated the announcement. There was a controlled sharpness in her voice, and I knew that she was a little bit angry with me. But I also knew that she was also very happy and proud of me. Miss Jordan was always able to speak with more than words.
One day I was supposed to have committed to memory Hamlet's soliloquy, ''To be or not to be/ That is the question. . . .'' But the real question - for me, at least - was what would happen when Miss Jordan learned that I hadn't quite mastered it. I planned on hanging back, depending on the bell to end the period and rescue me from some swift but uncertain fate. It was not to be. Miss Jordan's timing was excellent. She called on me before the bell. To this day I don't recall what I did to the Danish prince and the world's greatest soliloquy. Somehow, it all worked out.
As I look back, it was Miss Jordan who made it easy for me to understand why I should go to college, what I would be missing if I did not. It was Miss Jordan who introduced me to the joy of reading - because she enjoyed reading and making plays and poems unfold right before our eyes.
I think that when I started teaching school years later, consciously or unconsciously, I imitated Miss Jordan. I loved Miss Jordan. There's only one thing I'm sorry about, and which I regret to this day, and makes me wish I could turn back the clock.
Through all the years I don't think I ever went up to Miss Jordan and said simply, ''I appreciate you.''
I'm really sorry about that. I wish I had.