Today I introduce my first guest post, by Rose Tenney. Rose and I were both lucky enough to have a high school English teacher who changed our lives...in fact, we had the same teacher. Last week Betty Fagan was inducted to the Sherburne-Earlville High School Wall of Fame. Below is Rose's tribute to Mrs. Fagan, one of the thousands of teachers who make a difference in the lives of their students every day. If you haven't done so lately, drop a note to a teacher who changed your life. To guide students to personal and professional success is a noble calling, and for this, we owe all teachers our deepest gratitude.
Thank You Mrs. Fagan
By Rose Tenney
I had many excellent teachers during my years at Sherburne-Earlville High School. But I think the teacher with the greatest impact on my life was Mrs. Elizabeth Fagan, who began the school year by saying “I am your teacher. I am not your friend. Now that we have that clear, we may begin.”
Students at S-E knew that Mrs. Fagan would not put up with any nonsense at her end of the hallway. Students were to come to class well prepared, and woe to the boys who took a chance and tried to sneak a cigarette in the bathroom across the hall. Mrs. Fagan handled every infraction in a matter-of-fact and effective way. Students also knew that Mrs. Fagan was the teacher who taught English and prepared them well for the future.
Two classes I remember taking as a senior with Mrs. Fagan were “Wit and Humor” and “The Novel.” Those of us who elected to take those senior English classes met Mrs. Malaprop from Richard Sheridan’s play “The Rivals,” and the fun continued from there. Our English reading to that point had been filled with social statements, hidden meanings and alligators – oops, allegories – but the books we read with Mrs. Fagan were just plain fun, including works by authors like Mark Twain and James Thurber. Her novel class prepared me for future classes in college when I studied authors of southern literature: Faulkner, Hemingway and Eudora Welty. The “Wit and Humor” class was probably the most fun I’ve ever had in any academic setting
I also learned plenty of useful phrases from Mrs. Fagan. “A lot is a hunk of land. Don’t assume, you’ll make an ass out of you and me. Avoid comma overkill.” To this day, my chief pet peeve of grammatical errata has to be when someone says something is different THAN something else. It’s different FROM, I want to shout at the offender! But the best learning experience in my senior year came in December, when Mrs. Fagan checked with my classmates to learn about each student’s future plans. When she asked where I intended to go to college, I must have had a stricken look on my face because I hadn’t made a single plan nor filled out any applications. Sure, I had looked at some colleges, but I didn’t think I wanted to go away from home. Besides, some of those applications were long and complicated with application fees that would begin to add up at $25 or $30 per school.
That wasn’t the right answer to her question. She invited me to have a seat in her classroom and make a list of all the qualities I’d like in a college, including geographical location, the composition of the student body, and possible majors. She then set off to the guidance office. After a few minutes, my list indicated I’d probably head to New England, attend a co-ed school, and study foreign languages or maybe veterinary medicine. I wanted to go a few hours away, I thought. Reviewing the literature I’d received since taking the SATs, the two colleges I thought I’d like were Middlebury College in Vermont or Williams College in Massachusetts.
Mrs. Fagan reappeared with college catalogs and other information. She looked at my list, then turned to me and asked if I would consider applying to Notre Dame. I didn’t really know where that was – Ohio, maybe? – and said, “Isn’t that a boy’s college?” Well, I was set straight. Notre Dame had gone co-ed four years before and was in Indiana. I thought it sounded appealing, but I’d only heard of it because of its football program. I sent for an application, and because the brochure was beautiful with a simple application stapled in the center (not to mention the fee, which was only $15), I filled it out and sent it in. I was told to apply to two other schools because getting into Notre Dame was probably a long shot.
In a couple of weeks, I received a postcard from Notre Dame saying my application was incomplete and they needed my high school transcript as soon as possible. I brought the card to school to show Mrs. Fagan; I had taken the transcript form to the guidance office but somehow it didn’t get mailed. Mrs. Fagan marched to the guidance office and for all I know may have personally copied my transcript and mailed it for me herself. Later on I learned that she had friends in high places at Notre Dame, so she probably put in a good word for me as well.
On February 12, a Saturday, the mail included a thick envelope with an Indiana postmark welcoming me as an incoming member of the Notre Dame Class of 1981. That weekend my family went to my Aunt Mary’s retirement party and we all celebrated my good news. Unfortunately in all the excitement, I neglected to write an assignment for English, which was due on Monday. When I came to school and realized I didn’t have the paper ready, I told Mrs. Fagan I was too excited to write it and showed her my acceptance letter. She gave me a break, but insisted I turn in the paper on Tuesday. It was there the next morning!
At Notre Dame, because of the skills I learned from Mrs. Fagan, I tested out of basic freshman English and qualified for the elite freshman seminar class, where we studied literature such as The Epic of Gilgamesh and Chance and Necessity by Loren Eiseley, two of the many works examining various theories of the origins of the human race. Meanwhile, my friends in the general freshman English classes were diagramming sentences and correcting grammatical errors in weekly two-page essays to improve their writing skills, and reading some of the novels I had read in high school. Thanks to Mrs. Fagan, I not only attended Notre Dame, but already had a jump on my college career.
Mrs. Fagan gave me the direction she saw I needed. She did the same for many other Sherburne-Earlville students, whether helping us get through high school, preparing final drafts of doctoral theses to receive degrees from prestigious schools across the United States, or, as in my case, steering us toward colleges that opened doors beyond the wonderful world of literature. While I always knew Mrs. Fagan was my respected teacher, it turns out – in spite of what she told us that first day of class – that she was, in fact, also my friend. For this she has my thanks, from the bottom of my heart.