She was old when I met her—“old” in the way that a seventeen year-old boy sees a late, middle-aged woman. Mrs. Lewis was an ex-Roman Catholic nun who migrated down to the Deep South from Rhode Island. It was her job to teach my high school’s seniors Advanced English and Composition. She was short with the typical mid-body, horizontal spread for her age, had shortly cropped blonde hair, an often stern countenance (for reasons obvious when rational, fully adult human beings must deal one-on-one or en masse with mid to late adolescent males of the species), and stylish spectacles for the times.
It became quite clear on day one of the class that she could cut it, even with arrogant boneheads like me under her tutelage. The question was more, “Could we?” Any lessons we learned about advanced grammar, or other essential, artfully and elegantly used elements of the language have long since passed from my memory. But the composition assignments—oh, those dreaded (at first, at least) assignments—were tortured exercises in meeting the master’s just expectations. Whatever Mrs. Lewis did or said to me, even when it really stung to hear the always-helpful criticisms, brought forth what I believe she thought (and what I know for myself) was a more-than-significant transformation. In a mere two semesters I changed from “a creative kid with a bit of a way with words” to one growing into young manhood and the enjoyment of really good writing at the same time. But my enjoyment of writing didn’t end with reading it. I wanted to be the one who wrote it.
And then, after the graduation parties, the weekend hangs, the Lake St. John and Lake Concordia water skiing trips, I packed and left home.
Within what seemed like the ancient, close confines of Bondurant Hall, on the second floor at the back of the Hall on the side closest to the old gym, inside the boundaries of the beautiful campus of the University of Mississippi, the other she walked in. She was young, in stature more diminutive than Mrs. Lewis, had short black hair, wore the countenance of an optimist with an overload of natural energy, and without the covering of eyewear as I recall. She, however, was not old but, I would have guessed then, mid-twentyish.
On day one of Freshman Composition, probably only the second or at most third college class I had ever attended, Gwen—just Gwen, that’s how she introduced herself—somehow cemented into my consciousness that I was going to love, not grudgingly or even patiently endure this class. And as it turns out, I did. Without ever having seen a sentence of my work, when as yet no personal interchange had occurred between this student and that teacher, in fifty or so minutes of hearing, thinking, and learning about college-level creative writing, I felt myself personally buoyed up with a confidence and an anticipation which carried through for the whole of my freshman year. I did not have that terrible experience nor dread look that I heard of and saw from my classmates. I never had so much fun in a classroom in my life! Looking back now, my memory is that I fully immersed myself into, and relished every assignment.
In reflecting these many years after those days of my youth on my love of writing, I have thought about what is “in” me, and about these two very special women often and have come to a couple of conclusions. First, the one who created me did so with purpose and intention that I would use my brain, my senses, my experiences, my understanding of reality, and his gift of both logic and creativity to express thought: sometimes whimsical and ordinary, sometimes deep, and every now and again, rarely, approaching the sublime. But what about these two ladies in my life: Mrs. Lewis, and Gwen? What was their place, their role? What did the grizzled veteran and the eager rookie share, and how did they work together, though unknowingly?
Whereas God instilled the natural gifting and a kernel of desire into the heart of the student, these two beloved teachers provided the nurture, challenge, correction and encouragement I needed just at that time. Gwen, the rookie, finished phase one of the making of a young writer. Mrs. Lewis was the wise old veteran who began the awakening and laid both a strong bedrock of technical foundation, and imprinted the beginning of deep desire. Gwen “stood on the shoulders,” to use an old cliché, of she who had expertly, passionately, and masterfully gone before and planted the seeds which one year later yielded an eager embrace of what was dreaded and dreadfully endured by so many of my peers in that corner room of Bondurant Hall.
Today, when I enjoy reading good writing, and especially when I enjoy and passionately take part in the art of creating what I hope to be good writing, I have Mrs. Lewis to thank. She taught me how to build and tend a good, warm fire which can benefit—and once in a while, delight—all who come close. And to Gwen also, “Thank you. You fanned the flames that your predecessor had sparked and started, kept the fire alive in my gut and my heart, and cheered me on to improve and aspire to do better next time, and every time.”
Dear Mrs. Lewis passed from time to eternity a good number of years ago, and the last I can figure, Gwen (Professor Gwen now) is still laboring at her craft and teaching others to do likewise in Hong Kong. How I wish I could sit down today and speak with them both. Yes, I would like to extend my thanks. But more than that, I would like to ask questions; many questions. I still have so much to learn.
And I still want to express my undying gratitude for the rich, comforting balm that creating strings of written words, reflective of truth and beauty and meaning—much higher than I—has brought to the depths of my soul.
These musings are respectfully written to memorialize and honor the following, respectively.
The late Mrs. Barbara Lewis was a long-time resident of Natchez, Mississippi and taught Advanced English at South Natchez Adams High School in the mid-1970s. For a good number of years on trips home from college, or trips home to see my folks in my early married/career years, I would stop by Mrs. Lewis’ house for a visit—often unannounced. She was always delighted to see me, and I her. I often thanked her for the ways in which she had helped me. We shared a very fond affection for one another.
Dr. Gwendolyn Gong was born in the Mississippi Delta within the rich culture of a surprisingly large and once thriving Chinese-American population in the Deep South region of the United States. She has served as Professor and Senior College Tutor in the Department of English at Shaw College, Chinese University of Hong Kong and has authored or co-authored a number of books on writing and another, recently released, entitled The Mississippi Chinese Veterans of WWII: A Delta Tribute. The last time I saw or spoke with Gwen was on the last day of class my freshman year at Ole Miss. It is my hope that I had the presence of mind to thank her for her help then, because I may not get the chance again.