In loving memory: Nell Thomas, 1916-2010
I have known for years that someday I would be writing this post for my blog, and the task was not one I looked forward to having to perform, although I am grateful that at least it proved to be unnecessary for so long. This afternoon I learned that Nell Thomas, my beloved English teacher during my senior year of high school, passed away last Sunday at the age of 94. She was, simply put, the best teacher I have ever had, but that rather bland assertion is in no way sufficient to do her justice, or to measure the profound impact she had on my life. Among other things, I studied Beowulf, the Canterbury Tales, and Macbeth under her tutelage, and while I was already an avid reader with a definite scholarly bent, she was instrumental in reinforcing my love of the English language in general, and of the written word in particular. But I remember her just as well for the countless stories and anecdotes, always spiced with humor and verve, with which she entertained her students even as she taught them. (For instance, I'm smiling at this very moment as I reminisce about her impersonation of MacArthur wading ashore at Leyte, which I saw her perform a couple of times.) She was someone I loved to be around even when I didn't have to be. I used to walk her to the faculty lounge after class, which ended at lunchtime, and at the end of the school year she wrote me a note on my final report card, telling me how much she would miss that little ritual. I knew I would miss it, too; and sure enough, I always have.
Adolescence is a difficult time of life for nearly everyone, and it was especially so with me. Mrs. Thomas was smart and perceptive, but I believe she may never have seen in my actions or demeanor any hint of the deeply troubled and prison-like home life I left behind me when I went to school each morning, and to which I would always have to return at the end of the day. If indeed this is so, she may certainly be excused for that little oversight. I have always been grateful that my high school experience was so overwhelmingly positive, and that was especially true of her English class, which for me proved to be a sort of oasis within an oasis. Throughout my life, I have been highly prone to depression and cynicism, but I don't recall ever having any such feelings while I was in her classroom, not even once. She was always there to stimulate my mind and spirit, and more often than not, she made me smile in the process. Largely because of the way I was raised, I need approval, encouragement, and reassurance perhaps even more than most other people, and she was generous in giving me all of those things. She always let me know that she loved the papers and essays I would turn in to her, including one tongue-in-cheek piece about the potential benefits of taking up skyjacking. (This was in 1970-71, when there was a rash of commercial flights being hijacked to Cuba.) To this day, her influence in my life still manifests itself from time to time, even in the form of a few quotations and figures of speech I occasionally use. (For instance, "Your face, my thane, is as a book where men may read strange matters," and "Fly, good Fleance, fly, fly, fly," both from -- where else? -- Macbeth.)
I could tell dozens of stories about her, but my favorite involves something that happened many years after I graduated and went on with my life. I kept in touch with her intermittently, and in 1996 I returned to Mississippi for my 25-year class reunion. To date, that is the only time I have visited the state since a brief stay after I completed my church mission in the autumn of 1974. As soon as I arrived in Greenville to attend the reunion, I contacted Mrs. Thomas, who seemed thrilled to hear from me, and arranged to stop by for what I thought would be a short visit, perhaps as long as 30 minutes or so. It ended up being 3-1/2 hours, and was easily the most cherished experience I had during that very memorable trip. She was 80 then, and her husband, a Marine Corps veteran who had served in the Pacific during World War II, had passed away a few months before. I think she may have been feeling a bit lonely, but she was every bit as sharp as ever, and our long and engaging conversation covered a wide range of topics: literature, history, religion, current events, my wife and children, her own family, students we had both known, movies we had seen. (We had a rather lengthy discussion about "Judgment at Nuremberg," which has always been one of my favorites.) She was a deeply religious woman, and we both agreed that our mother tongue had lost something with the decline in popularity of the King James Bible. And while I don't recall this for certain, I may have recited for her the first few lines of Chaucer in the original Middle English, which she had told us we would always remember, as proved to be true in my case. That day, it occurred to me that this gracious, dignified, and highly educated woman represented all that was good about the deep South, and long before I reluctantly decided I had to leave, I knew that July afternoon spent one-on-one with her would be an experience I would cherish for a lifetime. And while I also knew she would not be with us forever and this was almost certainly the last time I would see Nell Thomas, it comforts me today to know that the last thing she ever heard me say was that I loved her.
I learned of her passing late this afternoon, when I had stopped at an Internet cafe for a refreshment after swimming a few laps at the nearby gym where I am enrolled. I discovered that someone had set up a Facebook page in her memory. I only briefly glanced at the page, to which I will return later, but my very first act after hearing this news was to send an e-mail message to my former dance instructor. It made perfect sense to me that she should be the first person with whom I would want to share my feelings about Mrs. Thomas. Angie Hines and Nell Thomas are two vastly different women, but both were gifted teachers with southern roots, who came into my life during what for me were exceptionally difficult times, then challenged and stretched me and brought out the best in me, and always did so with a combination of professionalism, humor, and sensitivity. In doing so, they both earned my everlasting gratitude, affection, and respect. I told Angie that of all the individuals who have influenced my life for good throughout my nearly 57 years, Mrs. Thomas's impact on me was the most similar to her own, and I added that I could probably pay Angie no greater tribute than to say this about her. Then I expressed the hope that her own life might as long, productive, rich, and evidently happy as Nell Thomas's was.
Mama Nell, as we affectionately referred to her, was her own gift to me, and surely heaven is an even better place now that she is there. Her obituary appeared in the Clarion-Ledger of Jackson, Mississippi, and may be found here.