Oh, for the Love of the Internet
Yesterday, I posted a piece on fall in which I began with James Whitcomb Riley’s well-known poem, “When the Frost Is on the Punkin,” and briefly described the geometry teacher who first introduced me to that poem, if not poetry in general. Memory is a tricky thing and when I wrote that her name was Ms. Conroy it never occurred to me that it might be something else. Until after I posted. Late in the night, after turning in, I had the nagging feeling that her name had not been Ms. Conroy but rather Ms. Conrad. Shortly after pouring my morning coffee, I dug out my sophomore yearbook.
Mary Agnes Conard. Not Conroy, not Conrad, but Ms. Conard.
With her full name, my next thought was to search for her online. I Googled, “Mary Agnes Conard Bloomington Indiana” and with the literal push of a button I found a list of articles, including her obituary, on Ms. Conard. She died in 2010 at the age of 96. Four years earlier, she was the subject of an article in Bloom Magazine, a publication with the tag line of “Celebrating Life in Bloomington, Indiana.” Click here for the article and photos of Ms. Conard who, though a good bit older than when I knew her, was exactly as I had remembered and described her.
In the short homage to her life, I learned my assumptions were correct–Ms. Conard had been a farmer all her life. She never spoke of farming as far as I can recall, but her appearance along with the way she moved, pushing past pain to get to the blackboard, reminded me of my great-grandmother, Martha Swanson, who was also an Indiana farmer. Grandma Swanson died the year before I took geometry, and the comparison of her to Ms. Conard readily presented itself.
That the World May Be Different
I went to a different high school in a different state each of the four years, beginning and ending in Ohio. Two teachers influenced my learning well beyond the time I was in their classrooms. My freshman year, I took Latin with Ms. Kauffman. Before Latin, I regularly received top grades in classes I liked (English, history, art) and failed courses I didn’t care about (math and science). I loved Latin and it kicked my ass. I had to work for an A, which I finally achieved in the last grading term and the effect was pivotal. From then on, all my grades mattered to me and I was addicted to academic success.
I tried harder in Ms. Conard’s geometry class than in previous math courses, perhaps in part because I took it the year after Latin with Ms. Kauffman. However, a good part of my disdain for the subject was that it intimidated me and it seems just as likely that I engaged in Ms. Conrad’s math class because nothing about her was intimidating. Her deep wrinkles were reasonably caused by exposure to the elements, but certainly the other culprit was the way she smiled with the entirety of her face.
Children know when they are in the presence of a teacher who loves her job, just as surely as they know the opposite. In life, negatives experiences are often the easiest to recall. Most folks only remember one, two, or if lucky, a handful of teachers who made learning, if not a joy, than a task worth working for.
James Whitcomb Riley was like a rock star during his lifetime. For many years he toured the country reading his stories and poems at sold out performances. When he died in 1916, the population of the entire United States was only a little over one million, yet more than 35,000 people passed Riley’s casket during the ten hours he laid in state. Ms. Conard was particularly fond of Riley because, like her, he was a native Hoosier.
Less than twenty years after his death, Riley’s writing fell out of favor. Today he is considered by many to be a minor poet whose work is sentimental and clichéd. But young people still enjoy him. I still enjoy him. When I teach middle schoolers, I bring his collected works with me and read his poems to the students when I can. The kids often ask me to repeat certain pieces. In fact, I don’t remember a class when they haven’t. And when autumn arrives in Ohio, looking much as it does in neighboring Indiana, I think of Riley’s autumn-praising poem and of an unassuming teacher who nurtured my desire for comprehensive learning. In so doing, she changed my world.
Again, here is the article on her life. I hope you’ll read it. Even if you don’t, click the link and take a look at her beautiful face.