Posted by: Brad Nixon | March 8, 2012

For Women’s Day: In Memoriam, Kathryn Drake

I dithered about what I could write in observance of International Women’s Day without revealing myself as another clueless, self-centered male. In the past years, I’ve had a guest writer, whose tribute to the spouses of members of the armed services, still ranks as one of this site’s most-visited blogs. Read Julie Nixon’s piece HERE. I wrote once about my English grandmother and her rise from orphaned, indentured serving girl in Britain to matriarch of a large American family.

Should I pay tribute to my other, equally loved and equally remarkable grandmother? My mother (I’ve had a fair bit to say about her but there’s obviously more)? Perhaps about some of the teachers who have influenced me or other important women I’ve known, or should I broaden the field and address some wider topic?

Then, this morning, I got the news that Kathryn Drake passed away a few days ago, and that settled the matter.

Mrs. Drake — as she will always be to us, her students — taught my freshman and senior year high school English classes. Mrs. Drake took writing seriously. She took education seriously. We were expected to take not only the subject, but our work in her class with a mature approach reflecting our expectations (this was NEVER questioned) of becoming college students.

We were silly teenagers, and anyone who expected us to be serious was bound to become the object of a certain amount of derision. And, yet, Mrs. Drake occupies a unique place in the memory of many students, decades later. This lifelong regard isn’t because of the passages from great literature (all of us who knew her can hear her say, “LIT-‘tra-ture” as clearly as yesterday) that we memorized, or the massive, ultimate, all-consuming Olympus of the final research report that was the culmination of our high school life. Many teachers hand out similar assignments without noticeable effect.

She was a keen, passionate professional, clearly prepared for every lesson and its objective, and determined that we would GET it (see “cognizant,” below). Although she taught the subject for more than thirty years, she worked annually to update her lessons, and (like many tens of thousands of other unsung teachers) spent many summers taking additional course. (degrees from Denison and Columbia and post-grad work in Scotland). Countless teachers possess similar dedication and accomplishments. What I believe distinguished Mrs. Drake was her clear grasp of what today would be known as a Mission (as in Mission Statement). She knew that as hundreds of kids passed before her eyes, year after year, perhaps only the smallest handful of them would become authors or scholars of the language and literature. But she also knew with an unshakable conviction that if these kids were going to college, they’d be expected to read with some context for the history of the language and the literature, and that they would have to know how to conduct some sort of basic research, write an intelligible report and form it into a structured, PROOFREAD document. That was her mission: history; basic grammatical structure; large-scale literary context, WRITING, and the possession of a lifelong ability to RELATE one thing to another, in whatever field.

Trim, dark hair in a shoulder-length underturned wave, large dark-rimmed glasses, expressive hands. She’d sit on a stool (kind of racy for an older woman in a skirt, eh?) (she was about 50 my senior year – younger than I am now) at the front of the class or stroll the room. That room in the 1928 building, high-ceilinged with large windows filling the north wall, was circled on the other three walls by blackboards. Above the blackboards, where in first grade would have been pictures with printed words indicating “Cat,” “Dog,” “House,” etc., and in second grade long strips of printed and cursive handwriting samples, and so on, had — in her classroom — poster board rectangles with quotations from great works of LIT-‘tra-ture: “I am a part of all that I have met.” “O wad some Power the giftie gie us. To see oursels as ithers see us” (she loved to read Bobby Burns aloud). There were perhaps a dozen of these. We were expected to learn them, and to learn who wrote them and in what work they appeared. Mrs. Drake knew that memorizing these twelve bits of literary trivia did not arm us with a well-rounded command of literary references. Instead, she hoped to set an example of what would be expected of us as we went on to study in college: that when we read, we should read to remember, and to be able to call to hand what we remembered and apply that knowledge to related matters.

And the RESEARCH PAPER. A mighty task. We must have a THESIS. We must construct a cogent argument. We must visit at least two libraries (as I recall) to do research, and we must cite X (I forget) number of references AND USE FOOTNOTES. The paper must be typed and there must be no typographical errors.

(For those too young to imagine it, I must explain that in those days there were no computers, no Internet; no search engines. Not at home. Not at the library. There was the card catalog. There was the Periodical Index, and other arcane, ancient research sources. Assuming one had a typewriter, there was probably no auto-correct, either.)

Serious, indeed.

Mrs. Drake also managed to be somewhat eccentric. I say this with the greatest respect, but I think her eccentricity was a kind of intentional Mr. Chipsian way of being both entertaining and memorable. She used odd phrases, which we all recall to this day. “Mr. Nixon, are you woolgathering?” (I probably was, but at least I learned what the word meant.) “Class, you must be COGNIZANT!” Well, we learned that word too, along with a lot of others. Part of her regimen was the “word a day” exercise, taken from an assigned book (“Thirty Days to a Better Vocabulary”), and we had to master new vocabulary words on a daily basis.

We’ve all had some memorable teachers, if we’re at all lucky. Hundreds of thousands of teachers around the world are highly trained, tireless and dedicated professionals who perform daily feats requiring endless energy and resourcefulness to inspire and, if necessary, goad their students to success. They care, deeply, about their kids. And, many, MANY of these teachers are women, and in addition to their roles as family members or wives or mothers bear enormous workloads and bring their compassion and their understanding of the human soul to their teaching. Let’s salute them all on this International Women’s Day.

What sets Mrs. Drake apart from many other excellent teachers of mine? It was that sense of mission and its ultimate extension: she created a sense that we were collaborators. She and her students shared complementary aspects of the same mission: we were going to go to college; we were going to become adults; and we were going to succeed — with humor and intelligence, without woolgathering. We were going to be COGNIZANT! This bond she attempted to foster throughout that senior year culminated in a neat trick. Since her mission, as she saw it, was to prepare us to be college students, it also meant preparing us to LEAVE  high school and leave our little town and to begin to regard ourselves as adults (at least adults-in-the-making). Her trick was to define a new category of person: The Super-Senior. Super-Seniors are the kids who come back from college on break and hang out at their old high school.  “This won’t be your school any more!” she admonished us. “You will be COLLEGE students.” And, to reinforce that fact, she created Super-Senior Day. She fixed one day in each school year when the college kids were on break, and they could come on THAT day and tell her senior English students what college was like. OTHER THAN THAT, she cautioned, we were NOT to be seen hanging around the old school.

I could effortlessly relate a dozen more anecdotes that would do nothing further to reinforce my message about the importance of the countless women who have taught us — they would only be self-indulgence. Whoever that teacher was for you, recall them now for International Women’s Day, and resolve to pass along what they gave you. If they’re still living, you might send them a note to tell them how much they and their work matter. Mrs. Drake is gone now, at 95, but immortal, for me.

Two poems that Mrs. Drake had us memorize — somewhat overly familiar and perhaps even slightly hackneyed — are still with me. The first, by the better poet, I can recite whole, without checking. As trite as it may be, I admit that for over 40 years, it’s remained a touchstone for me:

“There is no frigate like a book/ To take us lands away./ Nor any coursers like a page of prancing poetry./ This traverse may the poorest take/ Without oppress of toll./ How frugal is the chariot/ That bears a human soul.”

Emily Dickinson.

The other poem, from the now rather out-of-date H.W. Longfellow, I can’t recall in toto, though whole stanzas come back to me intact. I’ll excerpt it here as my tribute to Kathryn Drake.

“Lives of great men all remind us/ We can make our  lives sublime./ And departing leave behind us/ Footprints in the  sands of time.  //  Footprints that perhaps another/ Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,/ A forlorn and shipwrecked brother/ Seeing, will take hope again.  //  Let us, then, be up and doing/ With a heart for any fate./ Still achieving, still pursuing,/ Learn to labor and to wait.”

That “great men,” of course, also applies to great women.

Thank you for the footprints, Mrs. Drake.

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Responses

  1. Incredible tribute, Brad. Mrs. Drake affected lives in a way no political budget-slashing hack today can possibly understand. I wish I had better appreciated her while in her class, but, alas, I gathered a bit too much wool. Fortunately for me, I see her footprints still.

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    • Joe, your 30+ years as a professional writer represent just one of the countless testaments to Mrs. Drake’s success.

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  2. Well said!
    The quotation from Mrs. Drake’s classroom I always remember, and use frequently is from Hamlet:

    “for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

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    • Robert, thanks. If everyone wrote in which quotes they remember, we’d probably have a complete list, just from memory, just the way Mrs. Drake would’ve wished it!

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  3. Great blog, Brad. Reminded me of my 4th grade elementary school teacher Miss Johnson (who somehow pops into my memory from time to time seemingly out of nowhere). Miss Johnson was an exceptional person and teacher who really knew how to motivate kids and who greatly improved their lives. She changed me from being a “C” student who hated school into an “A” student who liked school. In one year. I don’t even know how she did it; it just seemed to happen so effortlessly (to me) that I was unaware of the transformation. From grade school through law school, I never had another teacher like her.

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  4. The teacher that had the greatest influence on me was Miss Eddingfield, and the subject for two long years was Latin. The subject was required to be considered for nursing school, and it’s a pity it isn’t still a required subject. About twenty years after graduating, I heard that Miss Eddingfield was a resident of Elyria Methodist Home, and I stopped to tell her how very much I appreciated the diligence that she always put in to her teaching. She didn’t remember me, but did appreciate that I stopped to say thanks. “All Gaul is divided into three parts” may not have helped, but learning the root words was worth it all, and conjugating the verbs was memorable.

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