National Writing Project

No Monument: A Poem From a Teacher

Date: October 2017

Summary: Educator, poet, and NWP Writers Council member, Shirley McPhillips, reflects on a legendary English teacher who taught her that the written word has the power to make sense of the world, and to foster human connection and joy.

 

Shirley McPhillips

Child, give me your hand / That I may walk in the light / Of your faith in me.—Hannah Kahn

Some people, if they are lucky, can point to a time in their lives when they know they have been affected. A slow river of recognition washes up over their toes. They wade in. For me, that time came in ninth grade, studying English literature with the formidable Louise Eubank Gray.

At Middlesex High, a small school in the rural Tidewater area of Virginia, Mrs. Gray was everyone's English teacher at one time or another. Certainly for my sisters and me. Those who stayed in the area, to grow up, marry, and have children, kept contact with her in the course of daily community life. Those of us who left to pursue dreams elsewhere would make an occasional phone call and visit her when we came home. She was the one we made plans to see. A touchstone for inspiration and wisdom.

I was painfully shy back then, and Mrs. Gray—short, stocky, no-nonsense—seemed intimidating to me. She didn't mince words. She chewed them up and spit them out, to great effect. Her expectations were a mile high and we dutifully slogged through the cannon. Thinking back, my writing was well-mannered and without any particular merit. I penned the deadly-dull synopses, the limp essays, trying to comply. But over time, her deep respect for the word, her belief in us to be moved by the word, took its effect.

As passionate as Mrs. Gray was about Melville and Twain, Alcott and Thoreau, something softened when she got to poetry. Or maybe it was me, longing. I remember one unusually muggy day early in the school year, the last class of the day, she bravely picked up her faded blue copy of Emily Dickinson and began to read: "I'm nobody! Who are you? / Are you nobody, too?" Silence. Just letting it sink in as she passed out a packet of other Dickinson poems for extended reading. In the last moments of the afternoon other students packed up, their chatter fading as they left the room. Mrs. Gray faded, sank down into her swivel chair, sipping cold coffee. I sat in the presence of a rare and strange feeling, like the one Emily Dickinson herself described, "as if the top of my head were taken off." I didn't understand all the poems then but I felt their power. I read right on through the bell.

Occasionally, Mrs. Gray would ask us to commit a poem to memory. She said that one day these words would bubble up at a moment when we might need them. She also said poems were meant to be heard, so we would learn to say them...and say them well. I chose William Wordsworth's, "I Wandered Lonely As a Cloud." I would have no problem with this one. It was a poem I already knew by heart. Every spring, out walking along the by-ways, "seeing what we could see," my grandmother would exclaim at all the earth's awakenings: the sweep of the willows, new buds on the forsythia, the territorial call of the redwing in the pines. "Look," she would say, "A host, of golden daffodils; / Beside the lake, beneath the trees, / Fluttering and dancing in the breeze." But that day in front of the class, my voice strangled with anxiety, I couldn't get past the first two lines. Mrs. Gray bid me stop, close my eyes, imagine the surprise, the magic of coming upon a field of fiercely-dancing daffodils. I could do that. Now take a deep breath, and begin again. We began together, her voice setting the pace, the tone, until my voice took flight on its own.

Just last year, I stood with my sister before Daniel Chester French's statue of the Minuteman at the North Bridge in Concord, Massachusetts. Eve, who had also memorized this poem for Mrs. Gray, gave me a sly look and we began to say Emerson's The Concord Hymn. "By the rude bridge that arched the flood, / Their flag to April's breeze unfurled, / Here once the embattled farmers stood, / And fired the shot heard round the world." Needless to say, other visitors to the monument were surprised, and I think, amused. They smiled, and applauded lightly. I felt a surge of gratitude, standing in a spot of history, immortal words spilling forth. Eve and I moved closer to each other. "Thank you, Mrs. Gray."

Mrs. Gray's faith in her students often went far beyond anything we could imagine for ourselves. There was no obstacle in her sights short of not trying. As teacher in charge of the drama club, she took a giant leap in casting me as Elizabeth Barrett in The Barretts of Wimpole Street (Rudolf Bessier). The thought that I could look into the eyes of Aubrey Hall—class heartthrob playing Robert Browning—even if my teenage heart desired it, and hear myself say, in public, "You should know that I would rather die with you beside me than live a hundred lives without you," was confidence indeed. On both our parts!

One day I found a book on my desk with a note from Mrs. Gray asking me to read through these vignettes and select a couple that appealed to me. Heaven in My Hand (1950) by Alice Lee Humphreys, is a collection of heart-warming (and heart-wrenching), often hilarious, moments of the author's experience as a first-grade teacher. I selected one, to discover that Mrs. Gray had signed me up to read in the state's annual forensic contest. We would rehearse at the end of each class until we got it "right." Hives and palpitations notwithstanding, we did. A whole day in the big city with hundreds of other students and their teachers, splashing words about with great joy. I could hear the stars breathing.

For Mrs. Gray learning was living. After retirement she co-authored two books of history, revitalized and directed the county historical museum, wrote a weekly newspaper column on area history, and published poems and articles. In her memoir, Reflections: Windows on the Past, she detailed her childhood growing up in rural Tidewater Virginia. Historians from Virginia universities sometimes consulted her for a lively discussion in connection with something they were researching and writing about.

In her last years, I think the capper for her was being named, at age 93, the Oyster Festival Honorary Grand Marshal. Riding through the streets at the head of the parade, she waved regally to former students and their families lining the route. One of those students that day stood next to me, his granddaughter on his shoulders, watching the "queen" ride by. "You know," he said, a little catch in his voice, "the thing about Mrs. Gray is that she supported you long after you left high school. She didn't stop being our teacher just because we were no longer in school."

A few years before she died, at age 100, Mrs. Gray sent me a poem called, "No Monument," one of a number she sent me over the years for one occasion or another. This poem reinforces what I have learned about the power of language to liberate and speak truth. It screams when it needs to and whispers when it wants to. The passing of a splendid torch.

 
No Monument
—by Louise Eubank Gray

I want no monument of stone,
a pulseless thing that stands alone,
to mark my ashes' resting place.

If I have led a child to see the beauty
found in bloom and bee;

if I have taught a child to read,
unlocked the past of thought and deed;

if I have written words to last
beyond the present's searing blast;

if I have given love to one, unselfish,
changeless, sun to sun;

I'll need no shaft to mark the spot
on grassy knoll or sheltered plot.

My monument will sing alive.
In someone's heart I shall survive.

 

Thank you, Mrs. Gray.

About the Author Shirley McPhillips is poet laureate for choiceliteracy.com and member of the Writers Council for the National Writing Project. Her poems have appeared in journals such as The Edison Literary Review, Journal of New Jersey Poets, Sewanee Review and in several anthologies. She co-authored, with Nick Flynn, A Note Slipped Under the Door: Teaching from Poems We Love. And in 2014, Poem Central: Word Journeys with Readers and Writers. A chapbook, Acrylic Angel of Fate, debuted in 2016. Recently, her poems were honored at the Artists Embassy International Dancing Poetry Festival in San Francisco, CA.

© 2017 National Writing Project