Saturday, December 4, 2010

Farewell, Mrs. Hill

I always loved school. Yeah, I know, how annoying.

I was sad when summer vacation started, and thrilled to go back again in September. That's not to say that I was a Straight A student- I wasn't. Procrastinators are born, not made- even in grade school, I would put off long-term assignments until the last moment. I talked in class a lot (imagine that). I wasn't good at math (still am not), and I generally liked boys better than any of my classes (even in grade school). But still, I loved school. I looked forward to English (my favorite class), and especially Reading. I actually liked writing book reports (I could read most books in a day, and since the school librarian would make me summarize books that I returned the next day, mostly all I had to do was remember what I told her, and write it down for class).

When I was in the 8th grade, I had an English teacher new to the school district. Mrs. Hill was an English English teacher, a war bride, and naturalized citizen of the US. She was short, with fiery red hair, and an accent that entranced me (and all of us). Mrs. Hill was something totally new- a tough teacher, who also could laugh with the students. A task-master who demanded the best from us, but who also allowed us to soar, and to explore literature in a way we'd never done before.

One of our weekly assignments was to scour newspapers and magazines for a new word, to write it down, cite the source, and use the word in an original sentence. Three of the words were chosen as Words of the Week (everyone who completed the assignment, got a C, and two of the three chosen words received B's). The submitters of those three words had to present the word to the class, which then voted on the best. The winner got an A. I only made the cut two or three times (turgid , in reference to the annual flooding of the rivers, was one of my words-  it didn't win). I remember that Kathy Lewis submitted dupe, and when she stood to give the definition, Lee Jensen (about whom, more later), or maybe it was Joe Thaut (I can't remember) interrupted her presentation and told her that the proper pronunciation of the word was dope. Kathy took him at his word, changed her pronunciation, and finished her spiel.

Mrs. Hill could barely suppress her glee at having the word defined in such a perfect manner. At our forty year class reunion, every single person in that class remembered that incident, and remembered it fondly. Including Kathy.

Later that same year, Lee tried to hornswaggle Mrs. Hill into telling him the plot of To Kill a Mockingbird, so that he could write a book review on it. I can still remember him badgering her, "But was Mr. Boo Radley blind?". Of course, Mrs. Hill was far too smart to be taken in by Lee (who was no slacker himself- he now has Ph.Ds in Biophysics, Biochemistry, and Neurobiology), though she was hugely amused by the attempt.

Of course, 8th grade came to an end, and back in those days, 9th graders in my district went to the high school. We left Jr. High (as it was called then) and Mrs. Hill behind, and forged into the future. But when I was a Junior, Mrs. Hill transferred to the high school, and I was lucky enough to have her for English again. And again as a senior.

Three years I had as a student of that marvelous woman, who encouraged me (and all of us), who brooked no nonsense, and yet could take a joke. Who made us work for our grades, but rewarded us well when we met her exacting standards.

After high school, I lost track of Mrs. Hill (as one is apt to do, when one's life gets busy, and having two children by the age of twenty-one qualifies), but when I started writing seriously (as opposed to the non-serious writing I did previously), I tracked her down and let her know how much her teaching, and her classes had meant to me.

That started a new phase in our relationship. We corresponded for years, she rejoiced in every book sale, and even came to one of my book signings out on the coast. Our adult friendship lasted much longer than our three years as a student/teacher, though I was never able to bring myself to call her Betty, as she requested. To me, she was always Mrs. Hill.

I imagine that you know where this is going. Mrs. Hill died on November 19, and this afternoon, in Everett, WA, her family is hosting a celebration of her life. I've been in contact with many of her former students, and I have yet to find a single person who remembers her with anything but deep and abiding affection. I've read tributes written by students and colleagues from other school districts, and their love equals ours. What a wonderful legacy, for a wonderful wonderful person.

I'm sorry that I can't attend the memorial service in person, but I'll be there in spirit, singing Mrs. Hill's praises with everyone there. Farewell, Betty- I love you, and I'll miss you.


Janet said...

Kathleen, this is a wonderful tribute. Isn't it something how a good teacher can have such an influence on one's life. And weren't you fortunate not only to know her as a teacher but also as a close friend later in life.
At my 50th H.S. reunion we were asked to name our favourite teachers - so many of us named a Mrs. Hornsey, the English teacher. She had also been my sister's favourite 10 years previously.

DragonsChest said...

I remember having a few teachers like your Mrs. Hill --- they are treasures indeed. Thank you for sharing your story, and her legacy.