Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Most Wonderful Teacher in the Whole Wide World

Mrs. Warnell slathered her face with Max Factor pancake foundation. Or something else the color and consistency of silly putty. This was not vanity -- I'm sure she considered it a courtesy. The foundation was an attempt to smooth out some permanent acne scars, fill the pock marks along the cheeks and chin to bring everything up to the same, or at least a reasonably similar, elevation.

The foundation may have also been an attempt to hide a mottled complexion, either that, or she just lacked some basic blending techniques, something we young beauties had known from the time we picked up our first copy of Glamour. But Mrs. Warnell met the world happily, proudly, with a complexion streaked by dusky pink and dun, like a sunset.

However she handled her make-up, it looked good enough to her, and it looked good enough to me. It looked good enough to all the students who loved her.

My friends in high school, we were an untrustworthy lot. I’d write English essays for one friend, who would in turn draw hands for my art class. Some other guy would handle our history or civics lessons, and we just worked those things out, to stay unflunking – it took a village of 20 or so.

As a consequence, when we graduated high school, we left with the very same accomplishments we had brought in the first place. But somehow, we all tested out of high school. Scored well on the SAT’s and ACT’s, and the only explanation I have is that we had been taking IQ tests from the time we could walk. We may not have had the answers, but we sure as hell knew patterns.

But back to Mrs. Warnell. I see her as the flip side of a mean and stupid person with a beautiful face. You kind of sit back and recognize the faults, viscerally yet unconcerned, because the faults pale in comparison to something that’s absolute perfection.

We who aced the English Lit side of high school found Mrs. Warnell romantic. She introduced us to Wordsworth, Keats, Blake, and Shelly, and not just the poetry, but the gossip.

You can only meet the romantic poets once; that’s the case for most of us at any rate. They're voices in your wilderness, and just at the time when you’ve never been more confident and you’ll never be so vulnerable. And you get this horribly beautiful feeling that the freedom you’re seeking is in fact the very freedom you’re leaving behind.

Mrs. Warnell gave us that bit of knowledge. She gave us a kick of nostalgia just moments before we had the legal right to feel it. She gave us pre-nostalgia, let us experience and share what it felt like to dangle from the last rung of the innocence ladder, with no option at all but to fall.

And fall I did. And fall did we all. Except Mrs. Warnell. She was the Mary Poppins of English teachers, with the special power to stay on the ladder even though history would repeat itself the following year. For her, it just never got old.

One time she walked into class and had a cap on her front tooth, at least a quarter inch longer than either of its neighbors.

“I had the most amaything axthident,” she said, “when ironing my blouse thith morning. So you’ll have to pardon the way I say my eth’ethz today, but I didn’t want to mith clath becauth I have thomething very important to share about Byron…”

How an iron came to knock out her tooth is one of life’s eternal mysteries. I try to picture it in my mind to this day. Maybe she was thinking about the Byron story (it was juicy) and brought her hand to her mouth to suppress a giggle, forgetting she was holding two pounds of hot metal. Knowing Mrs. Warnell, that’s a distinct possibility.

For our final class project, my best friend Karen Lawson and I dressed in vintage clothes and took the class outside, under the trees, to read some verse. We hadn’t prepared anything because we had ditched a lot of school. I remember Mrs. Warnell’s comments on our performance, perfectly. “Oh, what a joyous afternoon. Blue skies and a light wind; two lovely girls reciting poetry -- ‘Ah tra-la, now that spring is here.’”

Mrs. Warnell had a mission: To hide the imperfections of life whenever possible, and get on with the business of discovering and heralding beauty.

34 comments:

  1. She sounds like a fairy tale teacher, perfectly suited to her role and doing what she was born to do.

    I was a good student. One of those who sat in the first couple of rows at the front of the class. I had a lot of favourite teachers, yet, I can not remember the name of a single one. I do remember wearing a hairband an entire year because I suffered from bad hair on a daily basis. Grade 10. I guess I have a selective memory.

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  2. Lovely piece of writing. Well done

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  3. I LOVE it when you post things like this. You are a great story teller and an amazing writer.

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  4. She's the most wonderful teacher in the world...

    And, a lovely piece of writing. Well done, as usual.

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  5. I want to get a really big literary spoon when I read your writing. Yum. Thanks.

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  6. Your dog ate my homework.

    GG

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  7. A portrait that really brings this gem of a woman to life. Bravo!

    Wonder if she's still around? You'd be amazed how many of my kids' high school teachers were going on 30 years - and more.

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  8. I like the idea of her putting on makeup as a selfless act designed to make the world beautiful for others.

    I can remember some of my teachers' makeup jobs.

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  9. Mrs. Warnell would love these comments. If she's alive, or some lovely benign ghost, you can bet she's tra-la-ing. And if Karen Lawson shows up and comments, I promise I won't tell the story about Marcel. Oh, maybe I will. It's a good story.

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  10. Mrs. Warnell would be proud if she read your post... We all need a Mrs. Warnell to learn from.

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  11. As a former teacher this made my day. I hope a few of my students thought I was OK! And I agree with Pat, you are a fabulous story teller.
    V

    PS I had an English teacher in 9th grade who was always digging inside of her blouse in search of the allusive bra strap! I can still see it.

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  12. Another take-my-breath-away piece by you. I remain jealous of your art.

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  13. Naturally, I love this portrait. What better thing to devote a life to? Also, you're making me think of Maggie Smith as Miss Jean Brodie, one of my all time favorite movies (tho' I miss a lot of the Scottish brogue these days). But your Mrs. Warnell doesn't seem to have Jean's dark side. So much the better.

    When I went back for your teacher's name, I expected do see "Miss," but she was married. Maybe that too is a story.

    I hope all your readers have written a note, or more, of appreciation to a favorite teacher if they had one. Oh, have I said that before? Well, birds repeat themselves . . .

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  14. Thank you so much. Something else I remembered, the premise for reading verse on the grass was that Karen and I were the mistresses of famous poets. I'm sure I chose Byron, and Karen would have taken someone less superficial. I'm also sure we told some racy stories about our lovers. Mrs. Warnell would have liked that, she was no prude.

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  15. Oh the juicy, juicy gossip about the Romantic poets! The kids can't get enough. And one of the highlights of teaching senior English (British English) is getting to spend time with kids as they fall in love with Blake. Teenagers love Blake and connect him with him so closely.

    I love your Mrs. Warnell. If she is still around, you would do good to send this to her.

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  16. Your piece took me back to high school days, and the discovery of the big turn on that was literature. (Ok, it didn't take much back then . . .) Mrs Burkett and Mr Hoyt were our teacher guides. One friend came down with bad case of poison oak on her backside after reading Sons and Lovers and visiting our local mountains with a fellow seeker of literary bliss, and Michelle H and I sought spiritual revelation while reading the Brothers K by making an uncharacteristic visit to a church and waiting to see if the spirits would descend on us as they did Alyosha (sp).

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  17. I can see why you were in charge of writing other people's essays. I had a lovely teacher. She sometimes took us out of school for (I'm sure) unsanctioned field trips. We went on bus rides, to haunted houses and for nature walks. Less restrictive in the old days, I guess. I remember her so well, she's a security question for password retrieval ;)

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  18. Mr. Martin had us read with a dictionary on one side and an atlas on the other. Reading Captains Courgeous without looking up "gunwale" or "Roughing It" and not knowing the location of St. Joseph, Missouri was just not done.

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  19. Mr. Funk, fifth grade. I loved him and will always be grateful to him for making learning so fun. He held a spelling bee, and first prize was lunch with him at the Holiday Inn. I spelled my little butt off, but Colin Smith beat me out in the final round. I don't know what I did that made Mr. Funk feel sorry for me, but he took both me and Colin to lunch. Colin was gracious about sharing.

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  20. Christina, as a matter of fact, I emailed the high school. My class was in the 70's, and Mrs. Warnell was getting up in years; still anyone over 40 seemed incredibly old, so here's hoping.

    The poison oak story would be one of those sign posts in life, Michele. Though I would have taken Byron as my lover, Coleridge was my soul mate. Therefore, I was desperate to try laudanum. Fortunately, laudanum had disappeared from the druggy landscape, which is why I'm semi- coherent today.

    Georgia, the security question. No greater praise.

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  21. Lovely tribute! And beautifully written.

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  22. I was rooked out of getting a Mrs. Warnell for English, and my education was definitely diminished as a result. I moved from KY to CA after 10th grade and was not steered into any advanced English classes, so I was taking SciFi instead of learning about Wordsworth, Keats, Blake, and Shelly. I guess it's not too late, and your excellent story makes me want to sit outside and read some poetry. Better that than ironing.

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  23. There is so much beauty in the world. All you have to do is watch and listen for it. It could be the Brandenburg Concertos, or it could be Byron or Blake. What discoveries they are off the beaten path. And I think they change the person, little by little, with each reading or listening.

    You brought Mrs. Warnell to life. So vivid and understanding. What a joy to read.

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  24. So beautifully written, Karin.
    Reading this piece I come back to my high school class and many memories return to my mind...

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  25. It's been my experience that people who wear pancake makeup are the nicest people

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  26. I don't even own an iron, Katie. Because Mrs. Warnell was both a great teacher and a cautionary tale.

    Here's some Byron gossip.
    You know his poem, the one that begins:
    SHE walks in beauty, like the night/
    Of cloudless climes and starry skies/And all that's best of dark and bright/Meet in her aspect and her eyes

    It's not a poem about love and purity, but about a young widow (trophy wife of the day, I guess) who stepped out after her husband died, in black, yes, but black with sequins and all her jewels.

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  27. You've really brought Mrs. Warnell to life for us. As KBF says, she'd be proud.

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  28. I had Miss Ide in fourth grade. She was morbidly obese, witty and fun. And she loved her students. She "made" me be special friends with Isabelle, who moved in from Portugal speaking not one word of English, because we had the same birthday, and I loved every day of school with Isabelle and Miss Ide. She encouraged me to borrow books from her classroom library which I might not otherwise have read. And when tragedy struck our family 2 years later, 3 towns north, Miss Ide hopped in her trusty old sedan and came to visit and comfort me. Only those of us who are very lucky get a Miss Ide or Mrs. Warnell in our lives.

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  29. I received the nicest message from the current principal, William Wiesbrook, of my old high school. He didn't know Mrs. Warnell, but went back through some old yearbooks to find out more about her (likely she retired close to when I graduated), and has reached out to some others who may know the rest of the story.

    Then he said, "I'm glad she was a great influence on you...it sounds like you were fortunate to have Mrs. Warnell as a teacher."

    I suspect my old high school is fortunate to have Mr. Wiesbrook as a principal.


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  30. Reading Marjie's comment, we really should do a Best Teacher Ever post, and link to each other. Miss Ide deserves to be remembered.

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  31. This essay is a wonderful tribute. I had two English teachers who couldn't have been more different from each other but were each amazing in their own right. I blame/credit Mrs. Wilson and Miss Miller for my love of language.

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  32. Gosh, that just made me cry. I mean, really, I haven't met her and still, I miss her so very much.

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  33. I love this post! Meeting the Romantic poets is life changing to many of us. You can never go back, but you can never capture that feeling again...
    Alert us when you tell us stories of your teacher's capped tooth. I blew a cup of coffee out my nose when I read it!

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  34. AB, as this is absolutely the only story I have about a teacher's capped tooth, you should be safe from here on out.

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