Sunday, December 23, 2007

Betty Ragsdale (1921-2007) memoriam

Betty died early last week at the age of 86. She was my supervising teacher when I student taught in 1976. I can never think of the word "teacher" without thinking of her. Her influence on me was so penetrating and so enduring that a couple of years ago I attempted to write about it in a short story titled "Daphne's Chair". The characters are fictional but only barely.
I've posted below an excerpt from that story, rather long, but it evokes for me at least the memory of this amazing woman and my own good fortune in having crossed paths with her. As a teacher my ambitions outstripped my reach for one simple reason...I only ever wanted to measure up to Betty's example.

As a student teacher Vincent labored under her hawkish eye and earned his stripes. She was to him then something of an avatar, strictly old school. She treated her classroom like a personal grotto. Against district and union policy, she forbade custodians to enter her classroom, preferring to police and clean her own furniture and carpet. She claimed that people who tried to help her by cleaning her room just created more of a mess for her to undo. When her colleagues would be packing up to go home, Mrs. Daphne would be carefully going up and down the desk rows vacuuming the carpet or mounting chairs to wipe down the enormous chalkboards that ran from the floor to the ceiling at the front of the room.

Her desk sat tucked tightly in a corner of the room from which she could observe at her leisure the backs of her students’ heads. For the students’ part, they could never know what she was up to unless they turned their heads about which as often as not brought them into direct eye contact with Mrs. Daphne. And so they kept their heads trained in the general direction of the chalkboard, a bit like the inhabitants of Plato’s cave, thought Vincent in a typically cynical moment. When she arose from her desk, her approach coming, as it always did, from behind, she seemed to produce a general apprehension among the students that Vincent swore he could observe in the way they bowed their heads. He couldn’t decide if they were hiding or arching their necks like a cat that wants to be gently scratched. Both reactions seemed entirely plausible to him. She had repeated lessons on a daily basis to so many hundreds and thousands of youngsters that by the time she was ready to quit, Vincent imagined that she had personally imprinted the minds of more La Grande residents than had the local the newspaper. There was no doubt she had done so to better effect. Her legend had assumed mythic proportions due in part to her longevity but also to her unwaveringly narrow focus - thirty-seven years in that one room with only ninth grade English students.

To those who have never taught high school English it is difficult to convey the dauntingly monotonous prospect of teaching the same freshman English course five or six times a day for nearly four decades. Vincent had done the math and come up with the astonishing figure of nearly eight thousand 14 year olds. Judging from all that he had seen, Mrs. Daphne had shown up, in every sense of the expression, for every one of those eight thousand kids. Those were, Vincent knew, hall of fame numbers, even if there was no hall of fame. As for his own pitifully brief student teaching experience, Vincent would freely admit that he had mailed it in more times than he cared to count. And it wasn’t just on the level of preparation, the demands of which are absurdly enormous for anyone who hasn’t got three file cabinets full of material and twenty years worth of experience to inform one’s instincts. No one could ever be fully prepared for what might happen in a high school classroom, but one could be fully present in any classroom. Vincent had already experienced the disingenuous slide from the spontaneous to the contrived in the paltry span of two consecutive class periods. An off-the-cuff quip that earned a giggle in second period inevitably got trotted out by Vincent for an encore in third period. Of course the giggles were almost never there the second time around or the third, or the fourth, merely the sort of uncomprehending blank looks one might give a doctor in the first moments after he discloses to you that he has amputated the wrong limb quite by accident. Vincent usually received such looks as evidence of a kind of dullness in the offending classes. Such were some of the private and rather mean spirited observations he made in the course of a day’s work with his students. Vincent hated how easily he succumbed to those kinds of temptations, the pandering for laughs, the cannibalizing and fictionalizing of his own life experiences as a form of “relating”. He hated that his students were not terribly interested in him, but he hated even more that he wished they were.

Vincent had never sensed any of these rather venal conflicts at work in Mrs. Daphne’s classes. She seemed both motherly and impersonal, as if her own life hadn’t the slightest relevance to her work. She provided her students with a relentless and thorough security blanket of attentiveness. She appeared at the front doors of homes where she delivered forgotten textbooks to abashed boys and girls; she telephoned at supper with homework reminders. She admonished parents in the same way that she admonished her students; indeed, in the same way that she had admonished the selfsame parents years ago when they had been her students. In this small community, Mrs. Daphne was like the earth - there wasn’t any way around her.

When Mrs. Daphne retired in 1983, she left behind three file cabinets full of material on a wide range of serviceable topics for an English teacher. Such things as unit plans on as Longfellow’s Evangeline and other works from the freshman English canon, worksheets on how to use the dictionary, lists of irregular verbs, and instructions for composing limericks, haiku, sonnets and host of other verse forms. She also left her squeaky swivel chair and a seat cushion bearing a mauve floral pattern.

Vincent had come to room 61 as an intern, full of idealism and cool cynicism all at once. He imagined that he might open some children’s eyes, light a spark of curiosity here and there, plant a seed of intellectual seriousness. Instead, he was overwhelmed and undermined by the frenetic culture of the school. How could he be so recently removed from it and yet feel so alienated by it? It scared him to think, on the eve of launching a career as a teacher, that perhaps he had never really liked school. In truth, he hadn’t liked school so much as he had been good at it. He had earned excellent grades and had excelled in sports, but he had never gone to a school dance, not even the prom. He had forged no friendships that had endured…in short, given the opportunity to go back in time to his high school years, Vincent would have declined. So why had he chosen a career path that led him straight back into that very world? When he attempted to speak of such things to Mrs. Daphne she would offer him an almost beatific smile and tell him that he should trust her, that she knew he would be a great teacher. Her words consoled him only a little; her energy humbled him, and even though he recoiled at the thought of a life spent in the monastic fashion in which Mrs. Daphne had lived, he admired her more than anyone.

When he had been hired at the school a couple of years later, it had pained him to discover that others on the faculty did not necessarily share his affection for her. Indeed, her feisty isolation, her quirky and narrow focus, were laughed off by some as mere oddities. In his heart Vincent remained fiercely loyal to her throughout though there was never any occasion to defend her in a public way, since most criticisms were made in the offhanded and sly utterances that punctuate lunch table small talk. It galled him though to hear the smug and self satisfied tones of people who, Vincent was sure, had never, would never, hold a candle to Mrs. Daphne as a teacher. Vincent had been astonished to see the sorts of things Mrs. Daphne attempted with 14 year olds. They constructed abstraction ladders in order to illustrate how a story like Jack London’s To Build a Fire could be read on multiple levels. Mrs. Daphne showed them how by methodically abstracting any term or element of a story one could begin to both widen and deepen a story’s meaning. She showed them how the Yukon winters in London’s story were but a concrete example of a hostile environment of any sort, be it a jungle, a prison, a school, a battlefield, or even an entire society. Similarly, the dog’s reliance on instinct was a way of showing superior forms of intelligence or by implication, the folly of human intelligence. The greenhorn who freezes to death when his desperate attempt to build a fire fails is anyone too young, too proud or too stupid to know the scope of his own ignorance. His death was simply any failure to learn the principles and rules governing the world, a failure not only of fitness but more importantly of knowledge. Failure to survive in a hostile environment was the result of faulty or inadequate knowledge. In London’s story that meant a floundering, panicky death in the Yukon, but Mrs. Daphne pressed her students to imagine what that failure might look like in other hostile environments. From the class came the expected copycat responses initially – dying of thirst in the Sahara, or of malaria in the jungle, but Mrs. Daphne prompted them to extend their examples and waited.

A girl’s named Eva with red hair and even redder lipstick said, “Your could try the stock market. You could lose everything.”

Vincent had looked at the girl as if seeing her for the first time. Mrs. Daphne was beaming and nodding her head.

Then another hand, “You could go to a foreign country and get busted for something you didn’t know was illegal.”

Another kid immediately added, “You could drink the water and die of diarrhea.” Kids laughed as a kind of fever began to spread around the room for a little while as kids tried one upping each other. Vincent watched Mrs. Daphne cajoling the kids to leap from the literal plot through progressively more abstract formulations of London’s story and found himself moved by Mrs. Daphne’s determination to lift their eyes out of the thicket of words and into a wider semantic world of meaning. Her students toiled under her watchful eyes, oblivious to the difficulty of what they were attempting, knowing only that life was simpler for each of them to the extent that he or she could somehow satisfy Mrs. Daphne’s expectations. As for Mrs. Daphne, she harbored no illusions about the intellectual capabilities of her charges, nor did she have qualms about reducing great literary works to allegorical puzzles. Indeed, and this was what endeared her to Vincent even at his most callow and diffident stage, she could not help herself. The expectation of good work, of surprisingly good work, always animated her, and even their failures failed to disappoint her. Behind the entire enterprise, Vincent sensed a sense of urgency on Mrs. Daphne’s part. It was as if she herself were outfitting each of them for a journey into a hostile environment no less perilous than the one the foolish greenhorn in Jack London’s story had embarked upon on his fateful trek through the frigid and fatal cold of the Yukon. Sitting in Mrs. Daphne’s chair while she toiled over them and with them, Vincent let his eyes sweep up and down the rows of students, staring into the backs of their heads. Did they wonder, he wondered. Did they see themselves as the man who died in the story or the dog who survived?

Such was the struggle that she undertook on a daily basis. It was one that passed largely unnoticed by peers or anyone else for that matter, except of course her students. She was typically caricatured at the lunch table as a school marm, a grammarian with retrograde politics, an aging widow who was married to her lesson plan book and who loved nothing better than to circle spelling errors with a red ink pen. Vincent knew better, and, to his way of thinking, so should his colleagues have known better. But even Vincent could not seem to borrow from Mrs. Daphne whatever it was that sustained her indefatigable ambitions. The big picture always got in Vincent’s way. The world was a mess, and school was, as far as Vincent could tell, no place to look for evidence to the contrary. To Vincent the ignorance of his students was invincible, at least to his own ministrations. When he confessed as much one day to Mrs. Daphne, she had been quiet a few moments, as if debating within herself whether to respond to this or not. For all her affected ignorance of things current and intellectual - she was too busy in room 61to keep up with the world, she would often say to him with a sly smile - Vincent quickly discovered that Mrs. Daphne had mastered the art of self abnegation in a culture that only understood self promotion. She looked at Vincent and, without the slightest hint of reproach, she said to him, “Someone once told me something about teaching that made a lot of sense to me. He said that the art of teaching is the art of imagining ignorance.” Hearing this, Vincent knew that he had been admonished. He also knew, at that moment, that he did not understand precisely how he had been admonished. Years later he would make his peace with not knowing things, but beginning that afternoon he brooded for a long time about her words and his own future as a teacher.

So it was that Vincent experienced a sense of disappointment, a disillusioning process that began with his joining the staff and becoming a colleague of his mentor, Mrs. Daphne. In the end, the whispers that it was time for Mrs. Daphne to retire were made more brazen by a series of medical setbacks that came to symbolize for Vincent both what endeared Mrs. Daphne to him and what terrified him about all that she represented.

In the fall of her 39th year of teaching, Mrs. Daphne suffered a stroke which, though it did not incapacitate her, did leave the right side of her body impaired. For a few weeks, news of Mrs. Daphne dribbled out from Our Lady of the Valley parish. There were requests for prayers, and candles were lit in hopes of a recovery. As it turned out, she was able to recover quite rapidly a portion of her functionality. She could walk reasonable well; she could manage to dress herself and eat. The most significant and most lasting effect, especially in the minds of her students and her colleagues, in short all those who had to look upon her on a daily basis, was a drooping face on the afflicted side. Her cheek and mouth sagged and her eye drooped to such a degree that it gave the unpleasant impression that it was sliding off of her face, like a fried egg slipping off a plate. Those who, like Vincent, visited Mrs. Daphne at home knew of these things, but as for the rest of the community, it is impossible to know just what people really thought the first time that they saw Mrs. Daphne her on first day back in room 61. She had taken surgical tape and had attempted, purely on her own initiative, to draw up the skin above her right temple and eyebrow with an impressive patchwork of bandages. The results were mixed. Some of the downward sagging had been neutralized although the impression that something might fall off lingered still and was even augmented by the tape which appeared inadequate and ready to break loose at any moment. Her appearance now suggested some sort of injury by trauma rather than by stroke, as if she were a soldier with a head wound. And in yet another example of how ill fortune comes in waves, Mrs. Daphne’s good arm was afflicted with a form of carpal tunnel syndrome which necessitated her wearing a brace that ran from her thumb to her elbow. Unable to type, she could have used her sick leave and retired early, but Mrs. Daphne refused to quit. Instead she forswore the typewriter and transitioned to oral dictation as her primary means of giving directions. Her students acquired something of the habit of medieval scribes, recording as closely as possible the slightly slurred words of Mrs. Daphne. Little by little they grew accustomed to a slower, more deliberate pace of life in room 61. The room, which had never been a noisesome place, attained an almost cloistered sensibility with a distinctly Jesuit flavor. Mrs. Daphne would appear before her classes like some kind of knight errant, her right arm wrapped up like a blunt scepter, her visage partially helmeted in surgical tape, primed for battle. A kind of morbid fascination grew up around Mrs. Daphne. Students and teachers alike treated her with new-found awe and strangeness. She finished out her 37th year in this somewhat bizarre mask, and, having managed to fuse the ridiculously comic dimensions of the knight made famous by Monty Python for asserting repeatedly, “I’m not dead yet!” with the poignant and profoundly dignified madness of a Don Quixote.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just found out that Betty passed, so sad.

Betty was(is) an icon in Union County. You'd be hard pressed to find an individual here that has not been influenced by Betty whether directly or indirectly.

I have friends the same age as my parents who were taught by her.

She was tough but fair, and you learned whether you liked it or not.

God bless you fair lady and please correct my grammar from this post when we meet again.

Mike C. (LHS, class 0f 1986)

10:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am retired in Mexico and doing some mentoring at a local school (in English) and thought for the first time in years of Mrs. Ragsdale. I was thinking how one never knows when what one says or does might have an impact. I remember Mrs. Ragsdale telling me I had a wonderful sense of humor. No one had ever complimented me in such a way before. I treasured it for the past 46 years (if I am counting right). It gave me a measure of confidence for I was very shy.

I don't know who will read this but I wanted to share what a wonderful person she was. I also recall that she was always late - to school and to church. I wonder if that ever changed.

Mary Tannehill (LHS, class of 1966)

9:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I remember Betty from Jr High English when her class was in the old Jr High. She made us memorize portions of Portia's speech "Death be not proud...", and analyze The Jabberwocky. Most of the time I was lost and I didn't enjoy English. I always found her to be fair and caring with a natural way of commanding the room. Nobody messed with her.

I also remember being in your classes when you first began teaching. Perhaps your first year? I was in HS from 75-79...I would have had her in 75. My sisters had her. Didn't everyone in La Grande have her for English?

I almost went blind trying to read this white text on black background. I think it gave me an anurism.

1:26 PM  

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