I don’t remember most of the profs who led me through college because they were mostly arrogant lecturers better left alone to solve personal problems that I could not begin to comprehend. But I do remember, very fondly, every teacher that I had in high school between 1963 and 1967, and Mrs. Beulah Back who taught me English 3 and forced Herman Melville and Ernest Hemmingway down my throat for months on end during the school year of 1965 and 1966.
All the women teachers at Letcher High School were married except for Miss Whitaker and she was so fresh out of college that she seemed more like a student than a teacher, but that’s another story for another time. But the teachers never made Mrs. this or that sink in and we kids all called them Miss whatever.
So Beulah was Miss Back.
I’m pretty sure that she had Red
Badge of Courage, Moby Dick
Old Man and the Sea
committed to memory. And by the end of our junior year in high school we knew the meaning of every word in those three books and we had to read Mark Twain on the side and write book reports.
Her favorite line, and we heard it every single day, was “You have to get in the know, boys and girls. You have to get in the know!” And Miss Back knew the English language inside and out, backwards and forwards.
You walked into her classroom and she had 10 words written on the chalkboard and the first thing that you did was write them down in your notebook and learn to use them in a sentence. I used to think that she had Webster’s Dictionary also memorized.
Many of my high school teachers seemed to wing it in terms of preparing lesson plans. Not Miss Back. She came to her room prepared to teach and she demanded that we learn and every single minute in her classroom was all business. She taught with a fervor that was intimidating at first, until we all got used to it. Education, to Miss Back, was not about having fun. It was about work and she took it oh so seriously.
She taught us all to take that attitude and six weeks into one of her classes we learned to adjust our attitudes when we entered the door to room 3. Because we knew we’d better be prepared to work.
Miss Back lived and breathed her job. She must have put in at least 12 hours a day grading papers and preparing lesson plans and I’m betting that she spent her summers trying to figure out how to make the next year more challenging.
Some of us learned faster than the others, but she seemed to always keep our individual paces and I doubt she ever had a student who did not wind up loving her the way that I did by the end of the school year.
And she kept up with us long after we graduated high school. Several times when I was in college, I would get an encouraging greeting card from Miss Back in my mailbox. Usually a one liner telling me to keep up the good work and I would go around grinning all day long. That’s just the kind of teacher Miss Back was.
I just learned that Mrs. Beulah Back passed over to the other side recently. She was 88 years old.
I just wish that I had taken time to catch up and to say goodbye.