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Giving Credit

Volume X, Issue One | March 2015

A teacher friend of my mom’s once said if you had two good teachers in a subject, you would do fine. I was lucky. I had three. They were all English teachers, and thanks to them, I became a writer. They taught me grammar and a fascination with language, and they made me love stories. It’s not their fault I never learned to spell.

Miss Beulah Glessner, a sixth grade teacher at Park Hill Elementary in Denver was so extraordinary that parents sometimes removed their children from private school so that they could have a semester with her. Every Park Hill student was assigned to Miss Glessner for at least a semester, because parents complained if their kids didn’t get her.

She was the first teacher I had who taught me the importance of language. We learned to know the parts of speech — subject, predicate, noun, verb, and so on. Each day we would say “synonym-same meaning” and “antonym-opposite,” so we would remember what they were. Homonym, she explained, was the one left over. It meant two words that were pronounced the same but had different meanings–hymn and him, there and their, for instance. Whenever I hear the word “antonym” some 65 years later, I immediately add “opposite.”

If our class missed only five or ten spelling words on the Friday test–that’s not per student but the whole class–she’d read us a story. I loved The Secret Garden and realized only in later years that it was a pretty cloying book. She read The Biography of a Grizzly and told us about Pompeii, and she brought in her radio so that we could hear General Douglas MacArthur’s “Old Soldiers Never Die” speech. I hadn’t a clue what it was about, but I knew it was important, and I was glad in later years to be able to brag that I’d listened to it in sixth grade.

Most of my grade school teachers were spinsters in black dresses who seemed to be older than God. So I was thrilled on my first day at Smiley Junior High in Denver to be assigned to Glendon G. Schultz’s class. He was a World War II pilot and as handsome as a movie star. He had just graduated from college, and we were his first class. There were some 30 of us, and we were together under his direction for three years. He taught English and social science. I learned to diagram from him, something I didn’t care for at first. Then at choir practice one day, I complained to my friend Dorothy that I had diagramming homework. She said, “Give it to me. I love to diagram.” I wondered what she knew that I didn’t, so I took another look at diagramming and realized I, too, liked it. Diagramming was like putting together a puzzle. I still mentally diagram sentences when I’m writing.

Mr. Schultz gave me my love of Western history when he read Little Britches to us.

In his three years with us, he was not only our teacher but our mentor and friend, someone who helped us deal with that coming-of-age angst that’s so awful in junior high. He helped us survive. Lord knows if he survived, too.

Park Hill Elementary in Denver, sixth grade, 1951.

Miss Glessner is the tall woman in the back row, center left.

I am in the second row down, fifth from right.

I moved to Salt Lake City after junior high, where my senior year English teacher at East High was Pansye Powell. She had actually sold poems, the first person I’d ever met who made money from writing, and she convinced me that I really could become a writer. She introduced us to Shakespeare and Chaucer, and she taught us the obscure points of the English language, such as the difference between “further” and “farther.” (For those of you who didn’t have Mrs. Powell, “farther” is measurable distance. “Further” is abstract, i.e., you are further along in your studies than I, but I live farther from the schoolhouse.) I remember her asking which was correct: He is one of those who is going, or he is one of those who are going. Most of us picked the former. But she showed us how to turn around the sentence (diagramming again) so that it read: Of those who are going, he is one.

Mr. Schultz’s ninth grade class, 1954, Smiley Junior High, Denver.

Mr. Schultz is far left. I’m in the top row, third from right.

I should have been more diligent about thanking these teachers. I saw Mrs. Powell once when I was in college and told her she had steered me toward a career in journalism. And I reviewed a reissued The Biography of a Grizzly in The Denver Post, saying if you’d been lucky enough to have Miss Glessner in sixth grade, you loved that book. Someone sent her the review, and she wrote me, and of course, I wrote her back. How cool is it that a teacher remembers you! But then, she remembered everybody.

I never reconnected with Mr. Schultz, however, and I regret he didn’t know how important he’d been in my life. I wrote him a letter some years ago, sending the letter to an address in the phone book, but it came back, and the Denver Public Schools refused to tell me where he lived.

I got to thinking about these teachers a few weeks ago when a boy from Mr. Schultz’s class contacted me out of nowhere. Miss Glessner and Mrs. Powell would be over a hundred, so I was sure they were gone, but I had hoped Mr. Schultz was still alive. But my classmate told me he had Googled Mr. Schultz–why hadn’t I thought of that?–and found he died more than 15 years ago.

I found myself wishing there were some way I could thank these three, could tell them what they meant to me, how they turned me into a writer. It’s a little late now, but I think I’ve found some small way to let them know how important they were. I’m going to dedicate my next book, The Last Midwife, to them. —SD