53: What If I’d Dropped That Class?

53: What If I’d Dropped That Class?

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Teachers

What If I’d Dropped That Class?

Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.

~William Butler Yeats

On the first day of my sophomore year, I wandered the hall searching for my third-period classroom. My schedule said Latin. I knew that must be an error, but I needed to be somewhere before the tardy bell rang. I found the room, rushed in, and took a seat in the front row.

The teacher, a tall, lanky woman with short, tight curls, spoke in a strong voice. “Welcome to Latin. My name is Miss Hofer, and I tolerate no loafers. If you’re one who interrupts or does not complete homework, leave now.” She turned to write her name on the chalkboard. When a snicker floated from the back row, she wheeled around and aimed a penetrating stare at the perpetrator.

During lunch, I shared the experience with my friend, Alice. She frowned at me. “Latin? You’re not going to college, are you?”

“No. My schedule must be a mistake, but I hate changing classes. Anyway, Latin might be fun.”

She shook her head. “Not with Hofer. Latin! You’ll probably fail.”

That irritated me. At that moment, I decided I wouldn’t drop Latin, and I’d pass.

Although difficult, I loved the challenge of the subject. Also, I enjoyed Miss Hofer’s keen sense of humor, as well as her sincere interest in her students. In a quiet way, she demanded order and respect, unlike my Algebra I teacher, who threw erasers at talkers.

Often, she asked a student to remain after the dismissal bell. Then one day, it was my turn. My stomach churned as I shuffled toward her desk, expecting a reprimand for something, but I didn’t know what.

“I discovered you’re enrolled in typing,” Miss Hofer said. “Do you know how to use these?” She removed some stencils and a bottle of correction fluid from her desk drawer. When I shook my head, she explained how to correct the stencils, and then handed me a copy of the prior year’s Latin Club banquet program and a schedule for the upcoming one. I regretted I had raised my hand at a Latin Club meeting to volunteer my help with the annual spring banquet.

At first, I made numerous errors, but soon I managed to slow down enough to not need the messy correction fluid. After a week of hard work, I placed a box of assembled programs on Miss Hofer’s desk. She smiled and nodded at me.

The next week, I added Latin II to my schedule for my junior year. Not only was I passing, but I had earned an excellent grade in Latin I. I knew I could do the same in Latin II in spite of my friend Alice’s new set of warnings.

There were only two years of Latin available, but Miss Hofer also taught a Word Study class, recommended for college-bound seniors. I included it in my schedule for senior year.

Alice again questioned my choice. “You’re working at that drive-in place and playing in the band and orchestra. Your senior year is supposed to be fun. Why suffer with Hofer again?”

I didn’t bother to explain that I liked this teacher.

One day, just as the bell rang, Miss Hofer said, “Nancy, I need to see you.” No longer afraid of her chats, I waited for her request.

“What are your plans after graduation?” she asked.

“I’ll get a full-time waitress job. Maybe I’ll go to secretarial school someday.”

“I looked at your transcript,” she continued. “You can be admitted to the state college.”

“I can’t afford college,” I replied.

She handed me a business card. “Call my friend, Mrs. Johnson. She’s a language teacher. If you can get a work-study job, I’ll help you apply for a tuition scholarship. It won’t cost much if you live at home.”

“My family expects me to get a job.”

Miss Hofer sighed. “Think about it.”

When she called my name a few days later, whispers drifted from all parts of the room.

“Silence,” she bellowed. “She’s not in trouble, but you’re going to be.”

I traced the grooves in the desk with my finger until the other students left.

“Did you contact Mrs. Johnson?” she asked.

After a long pause, I replied, “No, I didn’t know what to say.”

She handed me a piece of paper. “Write it down.”

I found a nearby desk and wrote: “My name is Nancy Lewis. I’m a senior at Central High School. My Latin teacher suggested I call you about a possible work-study job. May I schedule an interview with you?” I handed it to Miss Hofer.

“Take out the word ‘possible’ and change ‘Latin teacher’ to ‘Nellie Hofer.’ Mrs. Johnson and I are good friends.”

I considered calling, but my family needed the extra money I could earn as a full-time waitress. No one in my family had gone to college, and I knew it would be difficult. This was not an option for me. However, my self-talk changed as the week progressed. A few days later, I took the paper from my notebook, deciding it wouldn’t hurt to call. Within two weeks, I had the promise of a full tuition scholarship and a work-study job. I wanted to try this, but what would I tell my parents?

One evening, as I helped Mom prepare supper, I took the plunge. “I can start college this summer. It won’t cost anything, but I can’t work full-time like Dad wants.”

Mom didn’t say anything.

I continued, “I’d like to live here and go to Southwest Missouri State. They’ll give me a part-time job and a scholarship. I can still do waitress work on the weekends. I’d like to major in education, to be a teacher. I can do it.”

“I’m sure you can,” she said. “It’s just a surprise. You’ve never mentioned college before. Of course, you should go. I’ll talk to your father.”

The next day, Dad’s conversations with his buddies changed from inquiries about my future job possibilities to bragging about my college opportunity. That weekend, Mom, who never spent money calling long distance, phoned my grandmother in Illinois with my college news. I smiled to myself, realizing how proud they were of me.

The next week, it was my choice to stay for a talk. I told Miss Hofer, “I received an acceptance letter for the scholarship to SMS. Mrs. Johnson wants me to start this summer. I’ll be typing Latin worksheets and grading papers. Thanks for your help.”

She smiled. “I understand you’re going to be an elementary teacher. You’ll be a wonderful one. Don’t forget to come back to visit me.”

Three years later, my parents beamed as I walked across the auditorium stage to accept my college diploma with a major in elementary education. My father even purchased a suit for the occasion. Ten years later, I received a master’s degree in reading.

Today, at seventy-five years of age, I sometimes glance at the two framed documents above my computer and wonder how my life would have turned out if I had chosen to drop Latin I. Many people and events have affected my life’s journey, but Miss Nellie Hofer may have been the greatest influence of all.

~Nancy Lewis

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