This post is from Elena Juris, the Deputy Director of the National Institutes of Health Training Center and the author of Positive Options for Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy. And hooray for New Orleans!
Ms. Landry was my 7th grade English teacher, unlocking a world that I carry with me today. Now, when I occasionally consult on clients’ writing or edit my team members’ memos, I wonder how easily I would express myself if I hadn’t received a strong foundation from a demanding instructor.
Ms. Landry seemed out of place at our New Orleans school, back in the late 80s. She presented a less-than-bubbly demeanor, a ringless finger, dark-colored unisex clothing, and a long, dark ponytail. Her life was shrouded in mystery to us students, and it was said that she lived in the turret of an old Creole mansion. She was not someone I wanted to emulate socially, per se. And yet I watched her from afar, because she knew something important and was calmly confident in it. By the end of the year, she was going to make sure we knew it, too.
Ms. Landry never played favorites. Instead, she was persistent with each of us as she exposed us to the rules and exceptions of English grammar. One of the most memorable moments of my Landry education was her foreboding warning that she would personally call each of us at home to ask for us, ensuring that we fully understood the predicate
nominative. We’d each be expected to answer her inquiry with the correct “This is she,” or “This is he.” We shivered with anticipation, imagining our telephone lines connecting directly to her turreted room on some unexpected evening. And sure enough, one night she called. We never knew when it was coming. We each were ready and never dared make a mistake.
Ms. Landry taught us the hidden pieces of the English language, with their tangled roots and prefixes, suffixes and name references to Greek and Roman sources. As schoolchildren steeped in Mardi Gras, we collaborated on a class project called “Mythology is Everywhere,” which tied the local parade krewes of our daily, colorful lives to the major Greek and Roman figures and stories. This blew my mind, this combination of old and new meaning intertwined with the same symbols; suddenly everything seemed to be secret language and history underlying our current rituals.
I’ll never know if Ms. Landry remembered me, and she never was overwhelmingly warm. Instead, I respected her and her diligence; she stood by her word and enforced high expectations upon the class throughout the year. Since then, the English language has intermittently “saved” me, thrilled me, provided me with travel-work opportunities and a communications and teaching career (for some time). Sometimes, I can feel my own Ms. Landry alter-ego coming out – when I “geek out” on an obscure word etymology or see similarities across other languages I’ve since learned. Either way, she handed me a key to an intellectual world that I was lucky to have visited at such an impressionable age. Hopefully, there remains room for these types of demanding instructors in our current school systems.
The New Orleans image came from here.