A professor can never better distinguish himself in his work than by encouraging a clever pupil, for the true discoverers are among them, as comets amongst the stars.
-From the biography of Linnaeus by Benjamin Daydon Jones, ch. 9
For my high school graduation, my parents gave me Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. I was simultaneously delighted and disappointed. You see, I loved this book and had requested it, so I was happy to receive it. But I was disappointed, because while it was the Bartlett’s that I had come to love as a rich anthology of literary wisdom over thousands of years, it was not the same edition as the one I had been using for the last four years in Ms. Rita Dean’s classroom. (She was Ms. Tolch at the time.) It didn’t look the same. It didn’t feel the same. It wasn’t quite the same.
My first significant experience with Mrs. Dean was when she was the coach for speech contest when I was in 7th or 8th grade. I was in the Honors English program in high school, and we would have one semester of literature with whichever teacher taught that grade’s English class and one semester of writing with Mrs. Dean, so I had her one semester each year for four years. She was the drama director, so I spent time with her during every play and musical season. She served as the sponsor for Students Against Alcohol and Drugs. She began the Sweetheart Banquet for seniors when I was in high school, and I worked with her planning that. I spent more time with her than with any other high school teacher except maybe the music directors. She was by far my favorite teacher. Spending many hours together with her in the classroom and the stage contributed to that designation, but it was more than that.
More than 20 years after my high school experience, if you asked me to name major influences in my life, her name would be one of the first I mentioned. Ms. Dean was always elegant and graceful. She was someone I could admire and look up to. She was someone I wanted to imitate. She was always poised and well-mannered. She always greeted the class with a smile. She wrote lots of notes on our papers as she graded them. She marked errors and passages that could use some improvement with tips for the next assignment. She also marked things that she liked and pointed out strengths so we knew what we were doing well.
She encouraged me to write. She would tell me about writing contests and urge me to send in a submission, which she would review and critique before I sent it in. The Sweetheart Banquet was her idea, and she asked for volunteers to help plan it. There were three or four other students along with me that were part of that group. She asked us for our ideas. She listened to our ideas. She used our ideas. Her goal was to organize a special event for the local senior citizens, and as long as our ideas were feasible, she let us take the lead. As high school students, we weren’t given very many opportunities to carry out our own ideas for a school function, and that is still one of my favorite high school experiences.
In my teen years, when I felt awkward and clumsy and out of place and insecure and a little lost, she encouraged me. She listened to me. She challenged me. She comforted me. She guided me. She believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself, and she helped develop my strengths when I did. I knew I admired her then, but in the last few years, I’ve realized how much I needed her then. And she was exactly the person I needed her to be to provide a steady, calming influence to my adolescent turmoil.
Seeing her unexpectedly at a restaurant or store after I moved away always made my day. We would be delayed to wherever we were supposed to go next because we would spend time catching up, as she asked about my life and my family. She would always ask if I was still writing. And she would give me a warm, slightly-scolding smile when I said that I was not. As I’ve been writing more in the last couple years, I have thought on more than one occasion that I would love to call her up and talk to her about it. Maybe she would mark up my essays the way she did more than 20 years ago.
I never called her.
And now I can’t.
I learned today that she died in a car accident earlier this week.
Tonight, I sit at my computer with my copy of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations sitting on the desk. It’s not Mrs. Dean’s. It’s mine. I’ve used it hundreds of times over the years, and I still enjoy finding quotes in it even when it is faster and yields more results to use the internet. I wonder how much my love for this book is because of the association with my time with Mrs. Dean. How much is because of the memories I have of sitting in her classroom or rehearsing lines or hanging up paper heart decorations? How much is because of who she was as a teacher and a mentor? How much is because of the gift she gave to me when she believed in me?
I don’t know of any more fitting tribute for her than to write, so in my tears, tonight I will write. And I will remember her every time I open Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. And every time I write.