The news came early this morning that my high school English teacher Betty Fagan had passed away. I knew she'd been ill so I wasn't surprised. I was, however, sad. More than sad. Heartbroken, really. Her death was not a shock. The shock came as my view of things, while standing there in the kitchen holding my coffee cup, tilted a little; as a small voice whispered: How is it possible that Mrs. Fagan is no longer of this world?
I have written about Betty Fagan on this blog before. Last year she received a well-deserved spot on the Wall of Fame of this town's school because of her renown as a teacher. In her stern way she taught us grammar and the importance of accomplished speech and writing. Betty took no prisoners in such matters: "Get it right or get out" was her way. She taught us literature in beautiful, articulate sentences. She graded our papers with a lethal red pen, a crimson weapon you could hear in her conversation even outside of class. There was no nonsense with Mrs. Fagan. School was work, we were the employees, and she was the boss. She was an English teacher, indeed; yet so much more. She was a force with which to reckon, a shaper of lives. She taught us the importance of education, of college, of hard work, of getting out there and getting on with it. When Betty Fagan walked into a room she owned it, and we listened. Her words could slice. And when the words were praise, no matter how infrequent, they were remembered for decades. She taught us the consequences of underachieving and the joys of really winning. She was one of a kind.
I don't know how many students Mrs. Fagan taught and influenced. Thousands, no doubt. Just today as the news of her passing spread across Facebook former students reacted, paraphrased below:
"It's amazing how many times I think of her, mostly revolving around grammar."
"Betty's passion for literature and correct composition was also passed onto her colleagues. She proofread graduate work for me and for others."
"I learned more grammar from her in my senior year than I learned in my entire K-12 education."
"She was a great lady who commanded respect...and deserved it."
"Such passion and drive she had to help her students learn and achieve. We used to say our papers would be bleeding with red ink after we turned in our first drafts. She was such an encouraging and helpful teacher to me and I will be forever grateful."
"She scared the crap out of me my first day in class...I bawled my eyes out. But I returned the next day and even took a class with her the very next year. What a lady."
"I owe her my college education -- she pointed me in Notre Dame's direction and gave me a good push to get me going."
One of the most meaningful comments for me, though, came from a friend in Minneapolis today:
"It feels that it is not just the passing of a person we admired, but the passing of an era."
Mrs. Fagan represented an era of education when students were pushed to excel without fear of lawsuits or reprisal by wailing parents that children should be handled delicately. Mrs. Fagan was not delicate. She approached her charges with terrifying honesty. Betty understood her job, which was to propel young and wavering people into a difficult world. She was there to help us, to guide us, to make us understand the difference between right and wrong. She was not there to make us all feel like winners, she was there to make us winners. She was there to teach us. And teach she did.
I'm sitting here alone this Monday night with a glass of wine and a box of tissues, toasting a woman who no matter how old, left us too soon. Thank you, Betty, for teaching me the complicated beauty of the English language. Thank you for criticizing and prodding and praising and inspiring. More than that, thank you for being the voice in my head every time I look at a blank sheet of "paper" on my computer screen. You may be gone from our lives in the traditional way, but you are alive in the minds of every student who was lucky enough to sit quaking before you in a classroom, and who knew you and loved you and asked your counsel years after classroom days were done. Here's to you, Mrs. Fagan: had you not been there for me yesterday, I would not be sitting here this night, weeping that you're gone and writing these words in what I hope are well-constructed sentences. Your red pen has at last been put away. But its influence -- and yours -- will never die.