Thank You, Miss Dine
Miss Dine, my sixth-grade English teacher, had mousy brown hair drawn back in a bun and wore thin dark-rimmed glasses. She was one of the scariest people I had ever confronted in my short eleven years on earth. A gruff voice came from deep down, deeper than any of the gentlemen of the sixth grade who secretly wondered if she were really a guy. There was a telltale moustache if you got too close to her. Of course, no one wanted to do that.
She dressed in dark clothes even in the stifling hot summer of 1952. She never seemed to sweat, which was another favorite subject of the sixth-grade gentlemen. More than one classmate mentioned that dead people don’t sweat. Most of us had seen the movie, Zombies in our House.
Guesses about her age ranged from a way-old 35, to a whopping at least 50. Her look would stop you in mid-thought and some suggested it had broken the huge clock on the outside of Oakland Grade School building. But, that was never verified. One thing you didn’t do in her class was act up. Unfortunately, I was a proud master of acting up. Her wooden ruler was very stout and she was not stingy about using her weapon. Her demeanor was effective. I hardly ever acted up in her class. Miss Dine did not hesitate to inform my mother.
She knew her English and was relentless in taking us to the wonderful world of sentence diagramming. How were we ever to get along in this world if we could not converse with a properly diagrammed sentence? No matter that we all seemed to communicate well enough. I was a surprisingly good diagrammer and didn’t shudder as my classmates did every time the mandatory white chalk was placed in the blackboard’s squeaky-clean eraser tray. That board really was black and I was often obliged to wash the dust away. And I had to clean the erasers -- outside, of course, even in the dead of winter -- and replace them on the ledge.
I remember one-day class was almost over and the chalk had not yet appeared. The class surreptitiously peeked at the big wall clock, willing the minute hand to pass up three or four numbers and hurry to the closing hour. It didn’t happen.
“Oh, look. It’s time for diagramming to begin.” It seemed that sentence was the one thing to put a semblance of a smile between the bulldog jowls of Miss Dine. “Lewis, we’ll start with you.”
All eyes swiveled to Lewis. In the annals of the worst diagrammers he was the world champion and to top it off, he stuttered. Lewis was a big kid and most everyone liked him. But this was an answer to a prayer. No way would anyone else have to have their brain dissected by one of Miss Dine’s tirades about how incompetent we were. And Lewis would take up all the remaining time.
Lewis stammered through a fairly easy sentence and then got stuck on one of the prepositional phrases containing two subjects. He knew I could probably do it so he looked back at me as he paused and pretended to ponder. Lewis crossed his left arm over his chest and rested his right elbow in his hand, tapping the chalk against his cheek. That always made his shirt rise up over his bellybutton and caused the girls to giggle. And unlike Miss Dine, he could sweat. Two huge watermarks instantly appeared on his shirt under his arms. When he pondered I usually tried to give him helpful signals. I had just motioned for two subjects when I got “the look”.
“David, are you helping Lewis?” Two deep-set eyes pierced my heart and I wondered whether the phrase, “if looks could kill” would actually claim me as its first victim. I began imagining what my obituary would say.
“Yes, ma’am. I guess I am.”
“You either are or you are not.” Miss Dine never used a contraction and pronounced “either” as if it started with an ‘I’.
“Yes, ma’am, I are. I mean, I am.” The weapon drawer was opening. It was only a matter of time until the dreaded ruler appeared. The fact that the class was snickering hardly helped my dire situation.
“Are you trying to display some comedic talent, Mr. Webb?” Oh, no. She used my last name. En guard.
“I was merely lending a helping hand to a friend, Miss Dine. I am truly sorry. It won’t happen again.” Oops, I used a contraction.
“It most certainly will not. I believe the erasers are going to need some extra attention after class this evening, Mr. Webb. Be here at four o’clock sharp.”
I can still picture Miss Dine standing in front of the class. Granny glasses before they were in vogue, old style lace-up granny shoes, usually a plain black dress buttoned up to the neck and a stern you-better-not-mess-up look on her face. Everything in her manor and attire said she was a teacher and there was no mistaking it. I don’t remember whether we had any fun in that class. But we learned. Her methods fostered a learning atmosphere which is undoubtedly now lost forever.
Despite enduring the eraser details, I realize I learned more from Miss Dine than any other teacher I had in school. Her methods were just the ones I needed to apply myself and all of a sudden, English became a subject I enjoyed. Unfortunately, I never returned to properly thank Miss Dine. I wish I had thanked her for her dedication and patience. Teachers had a difficult job back then and today it’s at least ten times harder to be a teacher. If you had a teacher who made an impact on you and he or she is still living, make it a point to thank them. It will make their day and give you a good feeling as well.
J. D. Webb
Shepherd’s Pie (Golden Wings Award winner)
Moon Over Chicago (2008 Eppie Finalist)
Her Name Is Mommy (Now available)
Smudge (coming 2010)
Stuck in Valhalla (available at Sniplits.com)
This essay was previously published in the Apollo's Lyre issue this year.