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What was I thinking? How could I be so half-a-century selfish? And how many great teachers the world wide have been ignored in the same manner?

I could have thanked her, you know.

I could have thanked Helen Hisey for being one of the best teachers in my known universe. I could have shown up one day at the retirement home and said, “Mrs. Hisey, thanks, thanks, thanks for making my life so bearable.” And I would really have meant it, too. Helen Hisey made me take a right-angle turn and sent me on my way down the long long road to this moment, the moment in which I feel comfortable enough to write down this little thought.

I’m standing in front of a classroom full of eighth grade students, students who are required to sit quietly and pay attention to me, the fellow eighth grader standing before them.

I’m making my first speech in Helen Hisey’s speech class at Tuscaloosa Junior High School in 1954.

I have nervously prepared for this moment, going over my three-by-five lined stiff note cards until I have them memorized…only I’m so nervous that I can’t get up enough confidence to depend upon memory, so, for lack of anything else to look at besides students, I stare down at the note cards and try to give a speech, utilizing all those rules that good speechmakers are supposed to follow: make good eye contact with the audience (not furtive glances, which is what I am producing), speak loudly (I’m projecting ok, since I was born with this Voice), be convincing (I’m convinced I’m going to expire prior to taking my seat), make appropriate gestures (I’m sure my hands are flailing about, if not in time with my spoken emphases), and be passionate about my subject (I am, I am…only I’m afraid to show it before an audience.).

Helen Hisey’s wonderfully warm and slightly nasal non-southern voice gently interrupts my speech, “James, try slowing down a bit,” is what she says, but what she manages to mean is, “James, you’re doing fine, and I’m enjoying this so much that I would really like to see you enjoying it, too…so relax and tell me a good story.”

I KNOW that’s what she means, and that’s what makes her a great teacher. Helen Hisey never makes you think she doesn’t have your best interests at heart, and her kindly, business-like manner reinforces this idea.

From that moment on, I do fine in Mrs. Hisey’s class, because, like every other student, I just know she is in my corner.

Later that year, she inspires me to write my first short story, entitled “The Fool,” and from then on, I am hooked on writing and telling stories to anyone who will listen or read. Subsequent teachers seldom encourage my writing, save for high school instructors Campbell and Williams, so there are years of gaps, years when I write lots of words for other people—my bosses—but seldom write what I NEED to say.

There are times I feel perhaps nothing I have ever written is worthy—did Mrs. Hisey tell me my story was good just to encourage me and fortify my self esteem?

I learn the answer to that question years later, when it is revealed that Helen Hisey had kept my story, “The Fool,” and read it aloud to every class for many years, using it as an example of a good tale well told by a writer willing to slow down and enjoy the ride.

When my first “respectable publishing house” book is released 45 years after Mrs. Hisey’s eighth grade speech class, it contains a dedication to her on the first page. When I call to arrange to present her with a signed copy of the book, ready to tell her how much she has affected my life, I learn that she has died. My dedication and devotion are a little too late.

What would Helen Hisey have said about THAT?

I can hear her clear voice, “James, you never had to thank me. Watching you emerge was the greatest thanks. Don’t you know that’s what good teaching is all about?”

Whenever I speak to gatherings of five or five hundred, I never have a moment of fear. Because of Helen Hisey, I’ve learned to slow down and enjoy the ride. Like her, I have learned that if you are enjoying the ride, and if you show your audience that you are enjoying the ride, they, too, will enjoy it.

Doesn’t matter what your subject is, the audience is there waiting to be taken away to a world full of good teachers who only want their students to emerge as good and happy grownups

© Jim Reed 2017 A.D.




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