The year was 1953 and the school year was about to begin. That entire summer I had been warned about Mrs. Wilson. Her name was dangled in front of incoming high school freshmen like a poisoned apple.
The older kids would tell horror stories of how she could dissect a student in front of an entire class. It made us newcomers feel like we were about to enter the Valley of Death.
Mrs. Wilson was our high school English teacher, but to call her simply a teacher would be like calling a Rolls Royce a car. She was the kind of person who commanded respect. No matter how disorderly the class, when she walked into the room, suddenly everyone was silent.
It certainly wasn’t her physical appearance. She was short and chunky, with spectacles and thinning hair always rolled up in a bun. The fact that she dyed her hair was anything but a secret.
However, she was loaded with the sharpest tongue in town. When she spoke, her words could come out as sweet as honey or as piercing as a hat pin. To get her dander up was something everyone tried to avoid – including the toughest kids in class.
Mrs. Wilson was a sentence-diagramming devotee. She started her students diagramming the first day of their freshman year, and they were still diagramming the day before they graduated.
One day, not long into our first year under her tutelage, one of the guys decided to have a little fun with her. While diagramming a sentence on the blackboard, he put the subject where the predicate belonged and vice versa.
Mrs. Wilson looked at him as if he had just committed a terrible crime. Then she asked, “What’s your name?” He knew that she knew, but he told her anyway. She stepped back, slowly eyed him from head to toe and replied, “It should be mud!”
She couldn’t have hit him any harder if she had used a hammer. From that day on he became a new student. Instead of half-listening to her, he became Mr. No Nonsense.
It took us nearly that whole freshman year to figure out that Mrs. Wilson really wasn’t so bad, she just expected us to be students. After we got past her tough exterior, we actually found a new friend.
Although she was a great teacher, she did have her weaknesses. One was her love of flowers. On the east side of her classroom, next to the windows, sat an old library table. It was so completely covered with plants that the table couldn’t be seen. Every morning she’d water the plants and talk to them as the first class of the day filed into their seats.
Slowly but surely, those flowers would take over the room. Before school let out for the summer, anyone sitting on the east side of the room had to fight a flower for his seat. It took on the appearance of an unexplored jungle.
But, unknown to her, that little greenhouse made an ideal place to hid things. Anyone needing to get rid of chewing gum or other banned items knew exactly where to hide them.
Mrs. Wilson’s greatest weakness was her passion for telling stories. It didn’t take long for us to realize that if we could talk her into narrating a story, it would probably take up the entire hour.
Her many years of teaching had put her in touch with a lot of people. Somehow, she seemed to remember every one of them.
One of her favorite stories dealt with four brothers, who would always fight. They were constantly being sent home from school because they couldn’t get along.
She took them aside and told them about a father who had his four sons each bring him two sticks. He asked each to break one of the sticks. He then took the four remaining sticks and bound them together. Try as they might, none of the boys could break the bundle. “Such is life,” he told his sons, “if you stick together, you will be unbreakable.” Mrs. Wilson finished her story by saying the four boys took her advice and built a very successful business.
True, she didn’t teach just English, but 65 years later, I still remember her and her stories. She was a great teacher.
Ed Rood is the former publisher of the Tri-County Times.