I would have climbed Mount Everest for her. Swim the English Channel? Let me get warmed up. All it took to motivate me was her smile and a Snoopy sticker. She loved Snoopy, Charlie Brown’s dog.
She was my junior high teacher, Dixie Lee Spencer, and is still in the Top Ten People I Admire the Most. It was more than her bee-hive hair-do, manicured fingernails and heavenly perfume that held my attention; it was the unique way she made a pimple-faced kid feel special. I didn’t have a crush on her; but I did idolize her.
Recently, on a long flight home, I jotted down the names of huggable heroes that I’ve had in my life. As my pen unloaded the ink on the paper, I realized the desire for excellence in writing and spelling were forged forty years ago in her class. She taught Language Arts and motivated me to be excellent at spelling long before autocorrect. One of the proudest days in my entire primary and secondary education was winning a spelling bee in her class. I strutted like a barnyard rooster for months after that. Okay, maybe I still do.
I often wonder what qualities she had that inspired me and other students. When I was in High School, we heard that there were some disrespectful students giving her a hard time so a couple of my classmates cornered the little hooligans and let them know there would be consequences if they didn’t treat her better. Good reports started coming in after that.
Here are a few qualities that caused her such devoted followers:
She cared about each student – I heard one parent say that, although Dixie Lee and her husband, Walt, never had any children of their own, she treated each student like they were her child. She did. And we loved her for it.
She challenged each student to excellence – The desire for a Snoopy sticker and an A+ on the paper was the only motivation I needed to excel in her class. She balanced any criticism she had to dole out as she graded a paper with a challenge for improvement.
She treated each student with respect- I have never responded well to any authority figure like a teacher, coach, or boss that yells or demeans people. Dixie Lee knew how to motivate a student simply by treating them with a gentle firmness that had a zero-tolerance policy for lazy ignorance but splendid grace for efforts that resulted in failure.
Dixie Lee died in a car crash when I was twenty-six. I got the terrible news in the hospital where my Dad was dying. I could not to go her funeral, but her husband, Walt, asked me if I would write her eulogy.
The crowd at Dixie Lee’s funeral was so large that people had to stand outside of the school. I ran across an article in an old newspaper and one photograph was of the immense procession of vehicles that stretched for miles.
Occasionally, I stop by the Blankenship Cemetery to visit Dixie Lee’s grave. Etched in the granite of her tombstone are a few of the words that I wrote about her in the eulogy.
Each one is spelled correctly. She would be proud of me.
Do you have a teacher that was one of your huggable heroes? Would you like to write about them and let me post it on my blog? I’d love to hear your story!