Dear Mrs. Simpkins,
I stopped by your grave the other day to thank you again for all you gave me. You probably heard me, but I want others to hear too, so I’ll write an open letter for all to read.
When I was a high school freshman and sophomore, I walked by your classroom every day on my way to the band room, where I had orchestra during the last half of fourth hour, and band during seventh hour. I didn’t know you, though, aside from sight.
Eleventh grade hit, and I had you as a teacher for half of the year. The course was English Literature. I was a bit of an Anglophile already, but you turned me into one for life. I can’t thank you enough.
All these years later, I can still recite the opening lines of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in the muddy older English that you suggested we memorize for extra points. I don’t remember many other specifics from that class, but I do remember my joy at being in your classroom every day.
Senior year hit, and you asked me to be your cadet teacher. That meant that I got second hour in the English office (now moved upstairs) where I drank coffee and graded vocabulary quizzes and ran the ditto machine.
Third hour was spent in your classroom for Expository Writing, the college-bound senior composition class. You gave me the only F I’ve ever received — for the mechanics of my first paper that year. You liked the content, but the comma faults and other grammatical issues caused me to fail that portion of the paper. I learned quickly how to use commas, thanks to you, and how to write better.
You would signal something was important by saying “Prick up your ears.” I’ve picked that phrase up a few times in my own teaching career.
I can still spot a preposition at fifty paces.
My big research paper was on characterizations in Beethoven’s Fidelio. I researched copiously, typed beautifully on my father’s manual Royal typewriter, footnoted heavily, wrote decently, and presented what you later called the most perfect, and most boring, term paper you ever read.
When I graduated high school, you gave me a leather bookmark from Stratford-upon-Avon, England. It was a precious gift then, and a precious gift now. I still have the bookmark, and I use it.
You requested that students write you on a date certain in October of their first year of college. I did. And over the years, I came back to visit you at school, annually spending an autumn day talking to your senior classes about college admissions and interviewing and the like. Apparently, my college admissions work made you think I might be able to prep these students a little bit. Those visits back to Lee’s Summit High School and your classroom were bright spots each year; I remember them with extreme fondness.
You see, I adored you.
You opened a world of literature and travel to me in English Lit, and you worked me over and helped me emerge a better scholar in Expository Writing. You taught me how to write. (The only comparable influence on my writing style is Simon Carrington.)
You truly helped me become who I am today.
Several years later, when I came out to you, you didn’t blink an eye, but said “Well of course you are. Now let’s get a cup of coffee.” Your unconditional love was something I needed at that time in my life.
And then you fell ill. Cancer. And your son David, a trombone-playing classmate of mine, fell ill with cancer too. You took a leave, and then quit teaching. I called you a few times, as I recall, and we talked easily. I was a teacher myself by then, and we had plenty to discuss.
David died first. How awful this must have been for you, as it is for any parent to bury a child, but especially when that child is in his prime.
1995. I called you and spoke to you after my first trip to the UK. I was so excited to tell you about all the places I’d been. You rejoiced with me, even though you couldn’t speak for long. Cancer was robbing you of breath and strength and that melodious voice.
I called again around Christmas that year. Your husband told me he’d give you my greeting, but that you couldn’t talk on the phone any more.
And then, right around Thanksgiving 1996, you died. I was gobsmacked by your obituary as I read the paper at breakfast in my loft apartment. I cried most of the morning. My parents were home from Argentina at the time; I called Mom to tell her the news, not knowing that just a few days later would be the last time I’d ever see her as well.
In the midst of a busy Holiday Vespers week at the University of Kansas, I made a quick trip to Lee’s Summit to stop by the funeral home. Your husband and daughter were there, and we spoke kindnesses. That same week, the Lee’s Summit Journal published a letter to the editor that I wrote . . . about you. Your husband, Arthur, in turn wrote a very kind note to me not long afterward. I don’t have a copy of that letter to the editor, but I remember I said that Lee’s Summit had lost a bright light who had enlightened hundreds of minds and hearts. (I’m going to find, somehow, a copy of that letter. This year, I’ll find it.)
I think of you often. I’ll hear myself say something to a student, and realize that you are in my voice. I read Wordsworth, and suddenly feel a ping of remembrance that you led me to this poet. I geek out over something British, and you are there in my joy and my discovery and my enthusiasm.
Yours was a happy classroom. You were a wise teacher. And such a good one too.
I’m a better writer today because of you. I’m a better teacher today because of you. I’m a better person today because of you.
You influenced me deeply and profoundly.
How I wish I could tell you so, one more time.
Your student ever and always,
P.S. — I wrote about you a bit a few years ago. Check out this and this.