Ode to Miss Gladys Evelyn McCormick

scylla and charybdisSometimes, upon an older person’s extending his hand, in greeting, I inwardly hear Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner:

“He holds him with his skinny hand/’There was a ship,’ quoth he./’Hold off! unhand me, grey-beard loon!’/Eftsoons his hand dropt he.”

Little do these people know I associate such high drama with mere extension of a hand.

My association comes unbidden, arising from long-ago memory of being in the class of a remarkable teacher.

To her students, Miss Gladys E. McCormick was ever “Corky,” a term we never used with her directly.

As teacher, she was both quirky and brilliant.

And since she taught college-prep English classes at West Warwick Junior High, no fewer than 60 years, her legacy is profound.

How’d she teach so long? The town could never verify her age, since her birth certificate was destroyed in a fire at Town Hall years earlier. I suspect “Corky” never facilitated them in discovery.

And in the same manner as ‘vintage’ anything, her reputation improves with the years.  That’s why, whenever we Baby Boomers share memories at class reunions, we sing her praises. Our only regret?  We never told her how much we valued her.

She was about 5’ 2,” matronly, with corkscrew, blue/grey hair that never bowed to control. Oh, she tried, as when she ducked into her walk-in, supply closet, at the front of the room, where she’d quickly run a comb through the thatch. She’d come back out, looking the same.

While there, she’d reach into her blouse and hoist up a bra strap charged with holding up her ample bosom. Then, she’d make a final check of her appearance in the little mirror hanging on the door and end with a spritz of “Evening in Paris” from its cobalt-blue glass atomizer.

We students committed her rituals to memory.

One recalled her lunging out of that same supply closet, brandishing the janitor’s wet mop she’d accidentally released from its pail, uttering the Shakespearean: “Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him well.”

“Corky” loved high drama.

On occasion, she’d shake her head, mumbling “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing,” whenever we’d fail at something we should have known.

Each day we’d be charged with solving a brain teaser she’d written on her blackboard, such as “What does ‘Between Scylla and Charybdis’ mean?” Since it was before Google answered everything, we students searched encyclopedic texts for answers.

She became our portal to literary greats like Shakespeare, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Longfellow, and a host of others.  That was important for we were milltown urchins who never enjoyed automatic exposure to culture. But many of us would go on to become our generation’s doctors, scientists, church leaders, teachers.

Miss McCormick was a fervent believer in something educators would sadly disavow in later years:  rote memorization of important literary works. As such, she had us internalize whole passages of great works.

That’s why today, I never witness Memorial Day services, without silently quoting “In Flanders Field:” “We are the dead, short days ago we lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow./Now we lie in Flanders Field.”

As a parent reading stories to my own children, at bedtime, I’d recall Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s: “Between the dark and the daylight/ When the night is beginning to lower/ Comes a pause in the day’s occupation/ That is known as the Children’s Hour.”

And in times of dissidence and national conflict, I hearken to words in President Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” “Four score and seven years ago, our forefathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty and  dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal…”

We former students note that we can still deliver, verbatim, whole passages we internalized.

And, in the process, we internalized our teacher.

Today, “Corky” rests in a modest gravesite in Coventry, aside her parents, with the simple identification on her marker: “GEM.”

We who had her as teacher are not surprised.

To all who teach, today:  Be the “Corky” for your students.

Your legacy will be assured as your students carry you with them, forever.

West Warwick native, Colleen Kelly Mellor (ckmellor@cox.net), is a motivational speaker and freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Wall St. Journal, Scripps-Howard, and many regional newspapers. She is author to the children’s books Grandpa and the Truck (grandpaandthetruck.com) and is regular commentator in the Providence Journal. Her website is colleenkellymellor.com.