by Diane Roland
It would be impossible for me ever to walk past her old room up on the second floor and not recall the scene outside her door on the night before the Dux Femina induction. The hallway would be buzzing with girls, whispering, giggling, ears pressed to the crack beneath her door, straining to hear who would be chosen in the next day’s ceremony. It would be inconceivable that March 15 arrive and I forget the scene of her students scrambling over one another to be the first to proclaim “Beware the Ides of March” and win the cash prize.
Although alumna (’60) and longtime English teacher Jane Greene died this summer, memories of her are vivid, cherished, enduring. As a Withrow teacher for 32 years, she dispensed humor and enchantment liberally, transforming vocabulary lessons from mundane to magical—I know you haven’t forgotten “Vituperative language is repugnant to me”— and generating spark and excitement about literature, particularly Shakespeare. In her Shakespeare course, Jane’s students conducted a funeral for Hamlet, replete with a eulogy, hymns, and local press coverage. As advisor to Dux Femina, she created and then burnished activities that became anticipated traditions: planting tulip bulbs on campus and playing touch football with the Sigs in the fall, decorating antlers for Reindeer Day competition before Christmas break, sponsoring the Tigertown Twirl and conducting the senior popularity poll in the spring, and finally, presenting the induction ceremony in May. Remember the “My little sister” verses ringing from the stage? I’m sure many of you have reminiscences to add to mine, and I invite you to share them with me.
A teacher’s greatest tribute is perhaps conveyed by his or her students. In 2010, Benjamin Gorman (’94) shared with Jane the following remembrance of his experience in her class:
Miss Greene could have broken me down. She could have told me, in front of everyone, that I wasn’t as great as I thought I was, that I ought to get over myself. I can imagine her remonstrance mimicked in the halls by students who, despite my best efforts to despise them, were right to look askance at the weirdo white kid in the trench coat with the spikes in the epaulets, hiding in his earphones and a paperback novel from the library. He was a freak, angry and scared and full of himself. Miss Greene could see all of that. She was able to look beyond the arrogance that manifested most fully in her class, where I felt most comfortable with my abilities, and see the kid who was terrified of everything else.
One day she asked me to stay after class. I don’t remember students “oooo”ing when she asked me to wait which inclines me to believe she did it in a careful, subtle way. “Ben,” she said, “I can’t teach you how to be a better writer. You’re already a better writer than I am. But I know some people who can.” And she marched me down to the library and explained how our class would work for the rest of the school year. Her plan was simple. Every few days she’d assign me another book to read. When I finished, I had to write her a paper on each one.
When I told her I didn’t like a book, she had me read another by the same author. I didn’t like The Scarlet Letter. “Six pages and six years pass with no dialogue,” I whined. “You didn’t like it? Read The House of the Seven Gables. I didn’t like the first book she gave me by Thomas Hardy. So she made me read Far From the Madding Crowd. I read Turgenev. I read Camus. The more I criticized, the more I read, and now I see that she subtly directed my criticisms, not only pushing me to look deeper but also guiding me to examine the skills she wanted me to work on. Hardy and Hawthorne didn’t make me a better writer. Miss Greene did. But she never said so.
I don’t know if I was a better writer than Miss Greene. It doesn’t really matter because, either way, she knew I needed to hear that. I’m not sure I’m humble enough to say that if it were a lie, and I’m even less certain I could admit it if it were true. Consequently, I don’t think I’ll ever be as good a teacher as Miss Greene. But I can admit that she taught me more than writing. She taught me about teaching.
Lessons in literature and life delivered by a master. How lucky we were!
Benjamin Gorman is a high school English teacher and author of the novels The Sum of Our Gods, Corporate High School, The Digital Storm, and Don’t Read This Book. He is also the founder and co-publisher of Not a Pipe Publishing. He lives in Independence, Oregon.