Dear Mrs. Rosemary Wagoner,
I had heard of your reputation as a strict and unforgiving teacher from my older sister and my classmates. They feared you, and knew you were tough, a hard grader, and had high expectations of all those who were in any of your classes. I had you for English in my junior year, and the rumors were all true; you deserved your reputation. One warning had been: “She won’t accept any excuses for unfinished work. No crying or protestations of illness or fatigue will make her cut you any slack on assignments.”
As an underclassman, when I was listening to the scuttlebutt in the lunchroom about all the teachers at Holy Angels High School, one thing I didn’t remember hearing about you, probably because fear had stuffed cotton balls in my ears, was what a fascinating teacher you were. I only learned this when I was finally seated in your classroom – second row, last seat on the right. You knew your subject, Shakespeare, backward and forward. Shakespeare, his time and work, seemed to occupy the present tense when you taught. You told us all kinds of little stories and experiences regarding his poetry, his plays and his characters. King Lear and Macbeth came to be with us in your classroom, as well as King Henry, Falstaff, Shylock, Portia – on and on.
One day at the end of class you told us to get out a piece of paper and write Macbeth’s soliloquy which starts “Tomorrow, and tomorrow and tomorrow”. After we had finished, we could leave the room, which meant getting out early. I had completely forgotten about the memorization assignment, and there is no way to fake Shakespeare, so after the shock wore off, I stood up and placed a blank piece of paper with my name on it on your big, brown desk, and turned to go. You picked up the paper, and then called me back to the desk. “There’s nothing on here.” you said, your ice-blue eyes looking straight through me. “I know,” I said. “I forgot to do the assignment.” “That means a ‘zero’ for your paper, you realize.” I said, yes, I knew that. You looked at me for a few seconds, then threw the paper in the waste basket, and said, “I let every student have one ‘freebie’. This is yours.” I stared at you in disbelief! You smiled at me and said, “Get going.” Was this a reality? Did you give every student a ‘by’ during the year? I had never heard this about you, and yet, I was experiencing that very thing. If it was true of you, than no one had dared to speak of it, and I wasn’t going to be the first. I went on my way, a very happy, and surprised, student.
Thanks, Mrs. Wagoner, for the wonderful way that you taught us Shakespeare. And thank you for your act of grace toward me that day. You set high standards in your classroom, and you expected compliance from your students, but I think you showed me the embodiment of mercy on that occasion, as in Portia’s speech from “The Merchant of Venice”:
The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.