Miss McLeod was a formidable woman whose family was very prominent and respected, who owned what was once the largest house in town, right next to the post office. The house, a huge, two-story Victorian, and the lot take up most of a city block. Miss McLeod lived at home with her parents all her life, and never married. I have no idea of her personal life. There were never any rumors about her. She walked across the street to the Methodist church every time its doors opened. She taught generations of barely literate and hardly interested children the discipline and beauty of language, though they did not know it. When you left her class, you spoke correctly, though you may not have learned to appreciate literature. Language to Miss McLeod was a matter of personal pride, as much a part of your appearance and conduct as good grooming and good manners. I remember endless hours working on grammar, learning how it all fit together like a puzzle, like a math equation, diagramming hundreds of sentences on her blackboard. She wanted us familiar and comfortable with the tools she gave us. As long as we became practiced and sure with them in our hands, she would let somebody else worry and fret over our creative efforts. She cared about us, the children of her town, that we conducted ourselves with respect, and that we knew how to speak as though we had been raised and taught properly. Miss McLeod prepared us for the lives she knew we would live, most of us right there in that town with her, no slouching, no mumbling, no disagreement between subject and verb, ever. When we left her class, we represented her work, and she wanted us to represent her well, and we did.
At times I rebelled against her adherence to the discipline in language, and I thought she would probably have corrected Shakespeare. When I think of her, I remember being almost afraid of her. If I know anything about how to construct a sentence, then it is due to her. Other teachers may have taught me to write, but she taught me to love the way words fit together. She gave me the tools to work with, while others may have tried to give me style and feel. Miss Mcleod gave me a hammer and a saw.
I remember how much she seemed to enjoy catching us napping. She seemed to really like teaching, and seemed not to notice our boredom, did not care that we were bored. She did not whine about it, she just taught what interested her, and soon enough, we came to care deeply about not getting caught by her in lazy, half-hearted work. We came to care about the appearance of things, about how we said what we had to say, because she made us care.
I wonder if she ever speculated about us, her students. I wonder if she made assessments and assumptions, and I wonder how accurate they were. I wonder if she would be surprised about me. Probably not.
In Miss McLeod’s class, you sat up straight and cut out all foolishness, the posturing so integral to the maturing process of teenagers. Later, as a teacher myself, the respect she demanded, and gave, remained a mystery to me.
My first novel was published in 2007. That achievement, the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, was due in large part to Miss McLeod’s influence. I named the main character, a woman of singular strength of will and determination, after Miss McLeod. The book is dedicated to women like her, who made their own way in the world when it wasn’t easy to do.