My hero would have to be my 11th grade history teacher. She was an iconoclast in our small farming town in southwest Georgia. She didn't look or act like your typical small-town teacher. And she certainly wasn't your country club type. She just wasn't like anyone else we'd ever seen ... even on TV.
She wasn't ideologically to the left or to the right. In fact in the presidential election in our senior year, no one knew for sure whether she voted for Carter or Reagan. That's when she taught us what the secret ballot was all about.
She wasn't particularly friendly with any of the school employees, except for the janitor and the Spanish teacher, but, maybe because of her presence or her background, she was respected and even feared, at least in one-on-one encounters. There was a rumor that during the high school football playoffs, she had a run-in with one of the coaches. One version had it that he left the gymnasium red-faced and teary-eyed.
When you saw her for the first time, you would swear you were looking at Olive Oil with fiery orange-red hair, but you didn't dare think on it too long. She was different - no doubt about it. For one thing, she was from Baton Rouge, which sounded foreign enough. She said women there didn't wear calico dresses or giggle behind their hands or whisper in mixed company. That remark and others like it didn’t endear her to her female colleagues.
What made her importantly different was that she treated us differently, like we were adults, even in our meanest, most juvenile moments. Although she taught us everything the state told her to teach us – we aced the state’s "quality control" tests – what most of the few of us who still attend the five-year high school reunions remember is that she taught us what she called "critical irreverence." All the icons – this is when we learned the meaning of the word ‘iconoclast’ – of American history and Western civilization she advised us to view critically and with a little irreverence, because, she said, too much reverence and too little questioning is sure to "keep you on the plantation."
One particular occasion stands out. Weeks before graduation, she defended a student who had submitted an essay for the state essay championship. The administration had moved to withdraw the student's entry upon learning the essay topic. She took her gloves off for that one - so we found out later - and gave the principal and his nephew, the vice-principal, a verbal thrashing that drew a small, enthusiastic crowd from the delinquents who hung around in hallways and parking lots until they became 16. From a more reliable source, we discovered that she even went so far as to threaten her resignation unless the student and his essay were reinstated.
Later that year, we heard that she had accepted a job at the local private (whites-only) school.
Peter McMillan, whose roots are in Alabama and Georgia, is a freelance writer and ESL instructor who lives with his wife and two flat-coated retrievers on the northwest shore of Lake Ontario.