Monday, January 16, 2012

Miss Roark and Louisa May Alcott

My ninth grade English teacher was named Miss Roark (we still said “Miss” in those days). She was from Alabama, and her distinctly Southern accent stood out in a school in suburban New Orleans, where most people sounded like they were from Brooklyn.

The class that year focused mostly on British and American literature. We read Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar – the curriculum tsars thought it might appeal to a class of all 14-year-old boys. We read Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. We read Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage (boys like war, right?). Our major project was to take one British and one American author, do a deep dive into their worlds and lives, and write two papers (and oral presentations) on how their lives shaped and influenced their writing.

We chose our authors from a list Miss Roark put on the blackboard. We chose in alphabetical order, which meant I would get whatever no one else wanted. The two names left were Shakespeare and Louisa May Alcott, Miss Alcott prompting a great deal of laughter from my classmates because she was the only female author on the list. (Some poor soul thought he was choosing a male when he chose George Eliot, the pen name for Mary Ann Evans.)

Miss Roark bristled at the laughter, and upbraided the class for their ridicule of an author she called, in her delightful Southern accent, “one of America’s most beloved authors.”

We had to read a number of their works. For Shakespeare, I read Julius Caesar (with the rest of the class), Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. For Alcott, I read Little Women, Little Men and Jo’s Boys.

Miss Roark said she was available to help anyone on their projects if they needed it. I was the only one who took advantage of her offer. We’d meet at lunch or after school. And she guided me, mentored me, and suggested several themes I could pursue. I loved that project, as much for the interest she took in me as for what I was reading and learning. Perhaps even more.

I thought of Miss Roark as I read the chapters on mapmaking, attachment and learning in The Social Animal by David Brooks. We started the group discussion on this book last week at The High Calling, and Laura Boggess continues to lead us this week. These three chapters start the story of Harold (son of Rob and Julia, whom we met last week) from the time of early childhood to high school. He finds his Miss Roark when he’s a senior – and she’s an English teacher, too.

Reading Harold’s story, and how he struggled, thought, read and wrote, and how he ran into roadblocks and was guided around them, I realized how it was virtually identical to my own project in ninth grade. The high school cliques he navigates are the same, although, unlike Harold, I was never part of the athletes’ clique. He learns a lot about himself, and he learns how to study deeply, do research deeply and think deeply.

Author David Brooks uses Harold’s story to illustrate the science and physiology that studies say go on in the brain with this kind of learning. It’s interesting, but it was less important to me than to recognize the overall process I experienced 45 years ago.

I never saw Miss Roark after that year. I changed schools for tenth grade. She called me at Christmas that year to thank me for the Christmas card I sent her; like Harold with his teacher, I was likely a little in love with Miss Roark. I sent her a card the following year, too, but it was returned; she had moved with no forwarding address.

But she had an enormous impact on my reading, my education, my future career and my life. I hope she knows that.

To read more posts on these three chapters of The Social Animal, please visit The High Calling.


H. Gillham said...
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H. Gillham said...

I love this kind recollection -- and I wish all students could have a Miss Roark.

Most teachers who last in teaching have aspirations to make differences like the one you remembered.

She would be proud of you Glynn.

Anonymous said...

If I ever go back to classroom teaching, I want to be that kind of teacher.

And also, I am amazed at what they had you reading in the ninth grade. Standards have fallen so much. I didn't get any Shakespeare at all till tenth grade. I read Great Expectations in AP English in 12th grade. Crazy.

Laura said...

Glynn, love this. The Miss Roarks of the world are rare.

I don't know why Mr. Linky didn't want to work for you. I tried adding an old post of mine and it went up fine. Of course, then I had to delete it, but it seems to be working now.

Thanks for sharing this memory.

diana said...

I wrote about an influential teacher, too, this week. Miss Roark sounds like a gem - and your other commenters are right: she would be proud of you!