Thursday, November 2, 2017

Three Weeks of Thanks-Giving; Thanks to the best teacher ever

We're b-a-a-a-ck!  It's Three Weeks of Thanks-Giving time, again. This is the time of year we give thanks for the teachers/writers who have influenced or encouraged us.

I've been blessed with many terrific teachers over the years. Today, I am giving thanks to a teacher whose class I did not attend, at least not in the traditional sense. And, unless he has been keeping a secret from me for the past 40-something years, he is not a writer. However, he is a dynamic teacher who, unknowingly, encouraged me to become a writer of historical fiction.

Coach Don Todd taught American history in the same 7-12 Tennessee school where I was librarian (excuse me: media specialist). I don't know about the rest of the country, but in the South, coaches teach social studies. Every single social studies/history teacher I had from grades 7-12 was a male coach. All of them with something more important to do than actually teach. My coaches were forever in their office (located at the other end of the school)making phone calls, leaving us to our own devices.

If the coach was actually in the classroom, the "teaching" went something like this:

"Y'all open your books to chapter six and answer the questions at the end of sections A and B."

With that, the good coach would rear back in his chair, plop his feet on the desk and flap open the sports section of the newspaper. Soon, the sports page would gently rise and fall in time to Coach's snoring.

Coach Todd was a totally different species of coach.

He taught! 

I had the privilege of observing him when his classes came to the library for research. I watched in wonder as kids, who were scraping bottom in the rest of their subjects, scrambled around in hot pursuit of information on say...The Robber Barons, and did any of them compare to the Kings of Wall Street in the 1980's? How did he get these students so fired up about Andrew Carnegie and Cornelius Vanderbilt?

"You got to fox them, Miss Rodman," he'd say with a wink. "You got to make them want to know more."

To Coach, history was not a bunch of facts and figures to be regurgitated on a multiple choice test. It was an always-exiting-never-ending narrative of our country. He made those historical figures real people, adding information that was not in the text book. They had wives and kids and problems and human failings. Their lives had beginnings and middles and ends, their stories woven into the lives of those who came before and after.  He may not have known it, but Coach Todd was one of the best storytellers I've ever heard. In his hands, American history was as enthralling as any miniseries.

It was Coach who gave me the idea to write historical fiction. As much as I loved writing, and reading historical fiction, it had never occurred to me to write it myself.

Coach (and most of the rest of the faculty) knew that my dad was a FBI agent.  Only Coach did the math and realized that Dad worked on the Mississippi Burning case, and that I was a ten-year-old witness to a lot of grizzly civil rights history. In the 1980's, the modern civil rights era, as covered in the American history texts, consisted of exactly two paragraphs  (Martin Luther King, Jr and Rosa Parks. The end.)  To supplement that unit, Coach started asking me to talk to his classes about growing up in Mississippi in the 60's.

"Why?" I puzzled. "Who wants to hear about my childhood?"

"Because you lived through history, Miss Rodman," he said. "It isn't all in the books. History comes from the people who were there, who lived it. And that would be you."

Once I started talking to his classes, I understood. What seemed every day, and not notable to me, was fascinating and sometimes unbelievable to Coach Todd's classes. The "everyday" indignities of the Jim Crow South were so outrageous that the students often accused me of "making up a story." I wish I had been, but no. Things were just that bad.

I assumed that the students, mostly Tennessee born and raised, would know something of the recent past.  But they didn't. Unpleasant history has a way of sinking into the swamp of time unless someone hauls it back to light and forces folks to look at it. That was what Coach did...and I got to help.

It was the students' questions, that made me realize that, yes, I did live through some pretty incredible times. Times that as far as I knew, were not written from the POV of an FBI agent's daughter. Maybe I should be the one to write that story. Twenty years later, I got around to writing that book, and lucky for me, someone actually wanted to publish Yankee Girl.

One of the best days of my life was when Coach Todd invited my dad (then long retired from the Bureau) to talk to his classes about some of his Mississippi cases, especially those dealing with the Ku Klux Klan (which was almost all of them.) I was reminded of that day again last week.

My dad passed away in September.  I was sorting through his files, looking for "necessary documents." However, Dad's habit of note taking during FBI interviews spilled over into his everyday life. He kept notes and documents on everything. If he ever threw anything away on paper, I don't know what it would've been. He was a hoarder, but a tidy hoarder...everything cataloged and filed away in his ten file cabinets. Along with the receipt for the furniture my parents bought for their first house (1950) and the maintenance manual for their 1963 Chrysler, I found the notes for Dad's talk with Coach Todd's classes.  Good times, good memories. (Thank you for the invitation have no idea how much that day meant to Dad.)

Coach was the first to make me realize that history isn't just Stuff that Happens to Important People. Sometimes history is the not-so-important people who are observing, or participating in their own small way. This is a lesson I've passed on to my own writing students.

"Well, yeah," my students protest, "but your family is interesting. Your parents were codebreakers and your dad was an FBI agent and..."  I tell them to listen to their parents and grandparents when they reminisce. I have had students whose "boring" families escaped from war, survived the Holocaust, outlasted Hurricane Katrina. History is story. Your story. And only you can write your story. The best lesson I learned, from the teacher I never had.

Thank you, Coach Todd.

One more thing we can be thankful for: book giveaways! Our current giveaway is Pet Crazy: A Poetry Friday Power Book by Sylvia Wardell and Janet Wong, which features the work of TA April Halprin Wayland. For details and a chance to enter click here.

Posted by Mary Ann Rodman


Carla Killough McClafferty said...

Excellent post, Mary Ann. When I grow up, I want to write like you!

Margaret Simon said...

I love historical fiction because of the way story makes the history real. You were lucky to have a teacher who embraced history in this way.

Joyce Moyer Hostetter said...

Somehow it has escaped me that you were a librarian (excuse me: media specialist). I love that Coach recognized the significance of your history and that it resulted in Yankee Girl. I do love that book! I also truly enjoy hearing about your dad and his methodical ways. And his integrity!

Bobbi Miller said...

What an excellent post. Thank you, Mary Ann!

Mary Ann Rodman said...

Thank you all for your thoughtful (and thankful!) comments. I was indeed lucky to have taught with Coach (who left teaching shortly after I married and moved away). There are also thousands of West Tennessee students who were blessed to have learned that history is precious and means something. The school was only a half an hour away from the Shiloh National Battlefield, and when you live among that sort of thing every day, you tend discount your own history as insignificant. Coach Todd didn't. God bless him.

Unknown said...

Thank you Mary Ann, for this excellent post!

Carmela Martino said...

Thanks so much for this post, MA! So wonderful to read the story of how Coach inspired you!

April Halprin Wayland said...

Mary Ann! I believe you would’ve been a writer in any case…your prose is so liquid, so easy to fall into and learn from. But bless Coach Todd. We’re lucky he reached out to you so that your writing could reach us.