I appreciate the education I got in Lincoln County, Georgia. I had good teachers, but being interested in Journalism, I especially remember four teachers: Helen Turner, Lib Estes who taught me as a substitute teacher, Alice Albea, and June Kelly. I look homeward a lot these days, and I find myself recalling what these teachers taught me.
I was hopeless at first. I knew nothing. Helen Turner taught me the difference between a verb and a noun. That’s how lost I was. She introduced me to diagramming sentences and that opened my eyes to the fact that language has architecture. Her reading labs taught me to read quickly but thoroughly with comprehension.
Alice Albea once worked as correspondent for the Augusta Herald and had real-world journalism experience but her true love was literature. Her classes late in the day in a stuffy classroom nonetheless held my attention. She introduced me to Southern writers and that was the beginning of my awareness that the South is the breadbasket of great writers in this country.
To this day, I can see the diminutive June Kelly behind her podium, peeking over it through her classic “B 52” glasses and a hairstyle reminiscent of Jane Jetson. She put great emphasis on descriptive writing, and it was from her that I first saw the value of helping readers picture what they’re reading.
Lib Estes taught me that the secret to effective writing was hard work and discipline, something beginning writers find hard to accept. They place too much faith in the false god, Inspiration. Later, when I taught alongside Mrs. Estes at Lincoln County High School, I remember how her classes responded to her earnest, knowing ways.
Learning from these teachers added to my life in immeasurable ways … I just didn’t know it at the time.
Now and then someone will talk about the teachers they had and say something like, “Yeah, well I remember my teachers but they didn’t teach me anything.” You’ll never hear me say that. My English teachers didn’t know it and neither did I back then, but in a way they were travel agents. They booked a life-long journey for me. I missed a few connections along the way and there were some unavoidable delays, but the train’s running strong now and language is the locomotive.
It wasn’t always easy though. I had to get over fool’s hill as my dad used to say of some kid who was acting up. With me, Mrs. Albea had her work cut out. More than once, she had to put me in my place for making wisecracks. Her gracious comments in my senior annual betray the fact that I didn’t earn an A in conduct.
Even though I may have appeared to lose patience with you at times, I did it through love and interest—hoping that I could get through to you somehow. She enhanced my learning in spite of a big obstacle. Me. And, yes, she did get through to me.
In November 2003, in need of a getaway, I drove to Thomas Wolfe’s hometown, Asheville, North Carolina. Had it not been for my English teachers, I never would have made the journey. In a way, they went with me. I could hear Mrs. Albea’s voice talking about how Wolfe’s father ran a gravestone business, the occupation that brought that inspirational sculpture across Wolfe’s path. I could hear Mrs. Albea discussing Wolfe’s Southern roots, a literary life forged early on in Asheville.
Mrs. Turner would have discussed Wolfe’s need for structure because long rambling sentences were a weakness of his, while Mrs. Kelly would have praised his description. Wolfe could describe a headstone and make you feel the cold slab.
Mrs. Estes would have pointed out his work ethic. Thomas Wolf stood 6 feet 6 inches tall so he wrote for long periods standing, writing in a yellow pad atop his refrigerator. He threw the completed pages into a box, one by one. Mrs. Estes would have pointed out as well his need for a good editor. Like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, Wolfe flourished under the precise eye of editor Maxwell Perkins and forged a prose style that mesmerized generations of writers.
I made a short walk from downtown Asheville late that afternoon, a misty cool day, a good day for reflection. I was thinking a lot about the folks back home. It was a typical November afternoon in the mountains, leaves in color, fading, and subdued even more by an ashen sky and drifting mists. I made my way to 53 Birch Street where the Riverside Cemetery slopes steeply to the French Broad River. Fallen leaves, moistened by the mists, made no sound underfoot. There his tombstone stood:
Tom Son of W.O. and Julia E. Wolfe A Beloved American Author
Oct. 3, 1900 — Sept. 15, 1938
The Last Voyage The Longest The Best
—Look Homeward Angel
Death Bent To Touch His Chosen Son With Mercy Love And Pity And Put The Seal Of Honor On Him When He Died
—The Web And The Rock
Thomas Wolfe lies at the hilltop not far from O. Henry. Two writers, their literary journey long over, but along the way, each, I’m sure, recalled with gratitude the English teachers who crossed their paths booking them for their respective journeys into not just the world of words but history itself.