Age doesn’t matter, not even at 94 years, it’s still hard to lose a person who has had any kind of influence on your life. That’s the way I feel about the loss of one of my most important high school English teacher, Doris Whalen.
This was a woman who didn’t pull punches. She said it like she meant it and meant exactly what she said.
“You can do so much better, Mr. Darby,” Mrs. Whalen would say to me. “You’re smarter than this, you simply don’t apply yourself and are lazy.”
And she never said it in anger or with any meanness — jus’ honesty.
Ouch, at first, but I she told me that so often I eventually let it go in one ear and out the other. And Lord knows, she was SOOO right about me and school work.
“I can’t stand the ‘Lord of the Rings, and I won’t read it” I told her one time, being rebellious.
“That’s fine,” Mrs. Whalen stated. “That’s the assignment and whether you read it or not is up to you.”
I didn’t and she promptly gave me the ‘F’ I had earned and deserved.
Her husband, Mike (yes, I was allowed to call him that behind closed doors as a kid, but never in front of other students) was easier to get along with. He was like a secondary counselor, who urged me to get out there and put my nose to the grind stone.
And he could take a joke, too. I talked him into letting me draw around his two pointer fingers using his coffee cup.
First, I did each finger separately, then slightly spaced apart, yet side-by-side, than the two fingers together. Finally, I set the cup on top of them and walked out of his office.
I can still hear him shout, “Tom!, Tom! DARBY!” as I closed his office door and walked down the hall.
Mrs. Whalen, on the other hand, would never cotton to such shenanigans. She was all business about teaching and we students, learning.
Waiting till the last minute to do, to complete, to turn in an assignment was something she could always tell I had done. And the one time I did do the assignment ahead of deadline – the only time – she gigged me for my spelling, my grammar and my inability to type.
D+ was the highest grade I ever mustered from her English class. Argh!
But, because she laid down the law, something I rarely heeded at the time, her words stuck to me like paste. I finally got my act together and stopped my laziness, I applied myself, I busted my ass in other words.
Twenty-years after barely graduating, I saw her for the first time. It was at the 20-year-class reunion and it was areal pleasure to see and talk with her.
Gone was the authority of the classroom. It was replace by a genuine desire to know how I was doing, what I had been doing with myself for all those years and if I had any plans.
She was nothing like the Mrs. Whalen who wouldn’t let me or others, as I found out that evening, get away with crap in class. She was happy to hear that all of us were doing well and were making lives for ourselves.
And though I’ve incarnated myself several times over the years from service member, paramedic, radio jock, cop, news reporter, cowboy, and such, I’ve always had a zest and a yearning to write and that is what I’ve done. And there has rarely been a moment that I haven’t heard Mrs. Whalen’s words echoing like a gentle whisper some where in my head, driving me forward, to do more and better with my words.
She believed in me when I had absolutely no clue what I was about. How did she know?
Simple. She was Mrs. Whalen.
And while I don’t know this for certain – I think she knew back during that 20-year class reunion that I still hadn’t read the book, “Lord of the Rings.” But I’m very certain that she knows now.