Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A Woman Named Charles

June Pair Kilpatrick

When we experience some degree of success, large or small, our minds frequently turn back to a person, perhaps a teacher, who helped steer us in the right direction. The grads of old John Marshall High School in Richmond can hardly get together without Miss Charles Anthony's name coming up. Among us, particularly the writers, she is still a legend although she's been gone for fifty years.

In my senior year there, I was assigned to the journalism class, presided over by this legend, a no-nonsense teacher who held a master's degree in English from Columbia and, with her class, put out a newspaper called The Monocle. The Monoclewas so good that it is the one high school paper included in the Library of Virginia's Newspaper Project.

Early in the second semester, Miss Anthony called me to her desk to ask what I’d be doing after graduation. My mother had instilled in me the idea of college from a very early age. Never "if you go;" always "when." I wanted to go to William and Mary and major in English or journalism, but money was an obstacle. Doors could have been opened, but no one in my family except my mother knew the first thing about college, much less opening its doors with anything but money, and now she was gone--a victim of cancer. I had thus picked up a notion of going to RPI--Richmond Professional Institute--the humble predecessor of Virginia Commonwealth University, more trade school than college. I could attend classes there and live at home. So I spoke up and said, “I’m going to RPI and major in occupational therapy.” Miss Anthony fastened her blue eyes on me for a moment in disbelief and then spoke. “You are not. You are going to Westhampton College, and you’re going to major in English.”

I confessed to her our family's lack of resources, but it would be years before I saw Miss Anthony’s hand in the sequence of events that followed. Soon afterward, I was mysteriously called from class to the principal's office to meet a Mr. Cornell from the Virginia State Rehabilitation Department. Dr. Dixon, the principal, escorted the two of us to the empty, mid-afternoon cafeteria, set two upturned chairs on the floor, and left us there. The visitor, a pleasant middle-aged man with glasses, put me at ease and then began talking about a plan the state had for giving scholarships to deserving students with disabilities. I nodded, although I was failing to see how I fit into this conversation. “I understand,” he went on, noticing my puzzlement, “that you have diabetes.”

“Yes,” I conceded, “I do,” still confused and now wondering how being a diabetic could place me in need of rehabilitation. During the two years since my diagnosis, I had gotten along very well with my diet and my twenty-two daily units of protamine zinc insulin. In no way did I consider myself disabled. “This scholarship would pay two hundred dollars a semester for four years,” Mr. Cornell was saying, taking a very white handkerchief from his pocket and polishing his glasses. “In exchange,” he continued, “we would ask you to teach here in Virginia for two years.”

He now had my full attention. Two hundred dollars is pocket change against today’s college tuition fees, but in that long-ago year, the cost of a semester at Westhampton was $350. I could live at home and earn enough by working on campus to pay almost all the rest. My future was coming into focus.
Miss Charles Anthony knew her students, and she knew how to get things done. I did exactly as she had told me. I went to Westhampton and majored in English. When I finally understood the source of this miracle, I was grateful indeed that my teacher had taken the trouble to meddle in my life.

Sometimes meddling is a good thing.

Adapted from the author's memoir, Wasps in the Bedroom, Butter in the Well: Growing Up During the Great Depression. 2012.

June Pair Kilpatrick will be signing her book at the Celebrate with a Book, Author Book Fair on December 15, 2012 at Regency Square Mall in Richmond, Virginia. Please come out and meet her!

1 comment:

  1. I hope each student has a teach like this. This is the type of teacher who motivates and inspires children.


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