In August of 1983, I was a junior in high school, and Miss Cathy Smith was my English teacher and our yearbook sponsor. Miss Smith had taught at Oakman for several years and had a reputation as one tough teacher, so I was terrified on the first day of class as I sat in her room--I think I was even afraid to breathe. We had all heard how hard she was and how strict she was, and since Oakman was, at the time, a small 1A school, we didn't have a choice of teachers. I had Miss Smith for English and yearbook in 11th and 12th grades. She was also the girls' homeroom teacher for 12th grade.
Miss Smith's tough reputation didn't fit her physical appearance. She was maybe 5'5" and MIGHT have weighed 100 pounds, but even the biggest and toughest of guys would shake in their seats if she had to give them "the look." The thing about Miss Smith, though, was that she didn't have to use her teacher look very often. Her reputation preceded her, and everyone of her students respected her 100%.
Another thing about Miss Smith is that she really wasn't a person to be terrified of. Being on the yearbook staff for my junior and senior years meant that I had an opportunity to get to know her in a different setting from the normal classroom setting...a more relaxed, laid-back setting...and we all learned that she was very relaxed and laid back. She was fun to be around.
In the normal classroom setting, though, she demanded excellence from ALL of her students. She required us to memorize the first eighteen lines of The Canterbury Tales...in middle English. To this day, I can still recite those lines (and I could even before I started teaching British lit.) She would make us learn the grammar rules, and then we would take a quiz by drawing one of the rules and reciting it. We had weekly spelling and vocabulary quizzes. Quick side note--Gary, who was a year older than me and one of my bestest guy buddies in the world--was on yearbook staff. He was going over the vocab one day during yearbook. The word was apathy, but Gary, to aggravate Miss Smith, kept pronouncing it a-path-y and saying that the definition was "what you have to walk on to get to the out-housey." LOL When we had to give presentations, she had a certain way she wanted us to begin, and if we didn't, she would make us go back to our seats and start all over until we got it right. We usually didn't have to begin more than once. Even though she had very strict requirements and high expectations, she was also fair and understanding. She would not force extremely shy students to make a presentation before the class, but she did not penalize them either. She would allow them to make the presentation to her alone. That is something I do with my students. I encourage them to make their presentations before the entire class, but if they refuse, I won't give them a 0.
I found out today that Miss Cathy Smith, or Mrs. Cathy Smith Byrd Leake as she became sometime following my graduation, passed away after a battle with cancer. She was 60 years old. I had not seen Miss Smith (as she will always and forever be to me) since my freshman year in college, but I wish that I had taken the time in the years since to write her and to let her know how important she was in my decision to become an English teacher. I frequently make references to her in my English classes. She was a wonderful teacher who touched the lives of many, many students over her career. I hope I can have half the impact on the lives of my students as she did on my life.
Miss Smith, may you rest in peace.
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