- by Alan Stafford
Most of us have that one teacher
who left his/her mark on us. For some of us, it was not
our favorite teacher, but instead a cranky taskmaster who
nevertheless left us with a principle, a philosophy, or a
virtue that has endured.
For me, that teacher was Helen Stoddart. Yes, that crank
in Room 101 who preyed on juniors, and who became Chair
of the English Department when "Thel" retired.
Make no mistake: I dreaded her class, and I dreaded her.
Never mind that I was often unprepared having not read
the assignments, Miss Stoddart was at the bottom of my
list at MHS.
You would have thought I would be at the bottom of HER
list as well. I was a kid from the wrong side of town. I
was the kid with the miserable homelife, and I was the
kid who missed so much school in the 10th and 11th
grades, but Miss Stoddart was relentless. We were going
to get this English stuff. We were going to graduate, and
we WERE going to succeed! And that included me.
I didn't really get it at the time. I thought it was
about reading Hamlet, writing essays, and passing
English. I was wrong. Miss Stoddart left her mark on me
more as a person than as a teacher. Two examples come to
Late in our junior year I was sitting in her class. It
was just another warm Mishawaka day in one of the drab
and dreary classrooms in the "old" end of the
school. Our boredom was interrupted by a note from the
main office. Miss Stoddart read it silently, then put her
hands over her eyes. (I later heard that it was news that
a close relative has died). There was a muffled sort of
mini-explosion inside her, like a deep cough you don't
want to let out. Her eyes filled with tears, and she sat
there for just a few seconds -- no more than ten or
fifteen. Then she wiped her eyes and straightened
herself. The class continued as before.
Now some of you may think that this was stoicism taken
too far. After all, today we are supposed to be in touch
with our feelings. I believe Miss Stoddart was in touch
with hers. However, she had a job to do. She didn't
consult a bevy of grief counselors or call Geraldo. Her
grace and poise in adversity was a better lesson for me
than diagramming any sentences. This glimpse into her
private life resulted in the realization that she (and,
by extension, all teachers at MHS) was more than faculty:
She was human.
The second example came after classes were over our
senior year. Miss Stoddart called me to her classroom to
offer her congratulations on graduating. She wanted to
take a graduation photo of me, and she asked me to give
her my college address so that she could write me. No one
had ever done such a thing for me. Miss Stoddart was all
animated and talkative; I think she was more excited by
my graduating than I was.
It took a while, but as the years went by I began to
understand: Crabby old Miss Stoddart -- and others like
her -- were doing their jobs. Their jobs were to prepare
us for the adult world; their mission was our success.
Miss Stoddart was so excited that June day in 1968
because I had succeeded. I had graduated and was going on
to college, and, because of this, she had succeeded.
One of the main disadvantages of moving to another state
as I did was that I lost contact with classmates and
teachers. During our reunions I would stop by Miss
Stoddart's house in South Bend, but she was always
staying with family in Canada during the summer. During
one such trip, I wrote her a letter. I don't know whether
she ever received it. I wanted her to know how her
determination, her dignity, and, finally, her kindness
had stayed with this former student.
You might criticize her (and their) methods at MHS during
those years, but you cannot dispute the results. To
paraphrase what someone else recently wrote: It IS
amazing that so many of us from a smallish, working-class
town succeeded both personally and professionally. As
someone once wrote, "Friends I can get anywhere.
Having a teacher who can lead and inspire is a rare gift,
Alan Stafford, BA, DDS, MBA, MHA,
Helen Grace Stoddart:
born December 14, 1910;
died July 19, 2003.
Miss Stoddart was the daughter of
William Wright Stoddart
and his wife, Mary Grace
Miss Stoddart's father was a Presbyterian minister.