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Cannon: A teen, a poem and a teacher who made a difference

Published August 23, 2012 6:33 pm
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Dear T.S. Eliot,

Now that school's back in session, I've found myself thinking about the first time I met my high school English teacher Miss Nelson, who died the day before I left for England. I'll be honest. It wasn't love at first sight.

I was looking forward to another year with the fabulous Mrs. DeHart, but when my friends and I walked into the classroom on the first day of school we found someone else sitting at Mrs. DeHart's desk.

She was decidedly flamboyant-looking, this new person. Her hair was big and honey blond — not true English teacher hair, which (I thought) should be a reassuring shade of New England pewter, like Mrs. DeHart's, for example.

Maybe this new person was a substitute?

But, alas — no. As soon as the bell rang, Miss Nelson stood before the class with supreme confidence and let us know she was the new A.P. English teacher in town. I slumped down in my desk and shot her poisonous looks for not being Mrs. DeHart.

I am notoriously stubborn, but Miss Nelson managed to wear down my ill will within a matter of weeks. Before long, class felt like the best kind of dinner party where guests are expected to bring their smartest, wittiest selves to the table. Meanwhile, she was the glittering hostess who presided over us all.

How did Miss Nelson pull that off? I've been a teacher on and off for years now, and I still don't know how she did it.

I do know, though, that she had a talent for guiding students through certain murky waters. Like your poetry, for example.

Okay, fine, Mr. T.S. Eliot. We all got that you were a genius, a major player on the 20th-century literary stage. However, please try to imagine yourself for a moment as an ordinary, hormonal American 17-year-old high school student assigned to read one of your own poems — "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," for example. COME ON! What's a kid like that supposed to do with lines like these: "I should have been a pair of ragged claws/ scuttling across the floors of silent seas."

Easy for YOU to say, Mr. T. Smartypants Eliot.

And yet as Miss Nelson asked us all the right questions, an unforgettable portrait of middle-aged disappointment began to emerge. We, her students, met a man, (your character J. Alfred) who has measured out his life "with coffee spoons," who yearns for some kind of glorious deliverance from his own mediocrity, only to spend his days wrestling with the most mundane of questions: "Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?"

And even though we students were frankly appalled by Prufrock's maddening passivity and self-pity, still we responded with a sort of adolescent empathy to his sorrowful conclusion that there will be no transforming magic in his life: "I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each," says Prufrock at the water's edge, "I do not think they will sing to me."

Ever since that day in Miss Nelson's class I have loved this brittle melancholy poem, and I have loved brittle, melancholy you, too. You, T. S. Eliot, were a gift to me from a good and generous woman.

She made a difference. Oh, such a difference!

RIP Joyce Nelson. Teacher.

Your fan,

Ann Cannon

Ann Cannon can be reached at acannon@sltrib.com or facebook.com/anncannontrib.






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