My first day of high school didn’t go well. I had trouble finding my locker and trouble getting the thing to open, but that was nothing compared to what happened mid-day. I misread my schedule, went to the wrong lunch period, couldn’t find the science wing, and ended up 25 minutes late to Mr. Rusch’s earth science class. Mr. Rusch was understanding but stern. My next class was Mrs. Hill’s freshman English. Our assignment was to write a letter to someone, telling about our first day of high school. Well, I had a story to tell, so I took a pencil to paper and I told it.
“This is good,” she said after she read it. “You’re very good.” And from that day on, Mrs. Hill went out of her way to help me learn how to write. So for four years, I went out of my way to take her classes.
Mrs. Hill died on Wednesday. She retired about a decade ago, but from what I understand, her health really didn’t allow her to enjoy her much-deserved retirement the way she should have. I can only think of two other teachers who ever pushed me like she did.
I have one more Mrs. Hill story that I have to tell. It was junior year. I signed up for newspaper. Juniors usually didn’t get to be editors, but Mrs. Hill thought I was up to the task, and a couple of other English teachers put in recommendations for me. So she made me one. And for a semester, I learned the joys of paste-up, counting units, rubber cement, rollers, and all. The way we made the newspaper hadn’t changed since, well, forever.
One day I noticed the computer lab next door was empty that class period. Our school was wealthy enough to have a handful of Macintosh SEs and a Laserwriter printer, back when Mac SEs and Laserwriters cost insane amounts of money. I asked Mrs. Hill why we didn’t experiment with producing the newspaper by computer.
“Do you want to learn how to do that and teach the class?” she asked.
“Umm, OK,” I said. I’m not sure that was the answer she expected. But she was up for the challenge if I was.
So we got permission from Mrs. Spencer–one of those other teachers I’d put in Mrs. Hill’s league–and Mrs. Spencer loaned me a book about Aldus Pagemaker. Yep, this was long before Adobe bought Aldus. And whenever I’d finished my work for the day, I’d walk next door, fire up one of the Macintosh SEs, load up Pagemaker, and spend the rest of the hour seeing what I could do.
By mid-year, I was as ready as I was going to be. Under her supervision, I taught everyone enough basic computer skills to write up their material–this was long enough ago that computer skills weren’t something everyone just had–and I taught the other editors enough Pagemaker that they could place stories and write headlines. Then I made everything fit, Mrs. Hill proofread every word and marked it up, and I went back in and made all the final changes before we went to press.
She encouraged me along the way, and gave me extra credit for the time I spent working on it outside of class. And she provided the patience. In those days, that was always in short supply because that early software would do some strange things, and even when the software behaved, the computers crashed a lot and sometimes the printer printed gobbledygook instead of our carefully designed pages. If she wondered whether it was worth it, I don’t blame her. But we were keeping with the times, and we were learning.
Each semester I had more than twice as much credit than I’d need for an A in the class, so I didn’t need to take the final, but she always made me take that final. And I did. I needed to know the material, not just how to write and place text on pages and make computers behave better.
Speaking of writing, she encouraged me to publish. I sold my first article to the late, great Compute magazine when I was barely 16. It was never published, but a column appeared a few months later with someone else’s name on it containing material that I thought looked suspiciously like mine.
“Plagiarism happens,” she said. As an English teacher, she was in all too good of position to know. “Remember, they’re paying you a compliment. That’s what I try to tell myself when someone copies one of my paintings.”
And I think that’s what I remember most about her. With her, it wasn’t just about the classroom and the assigned work. If she could help you be successful, she was there for you. I think that’s true of all teachers to one degree or another, but Mrs. Hill was exemplary. The school she taught at had a reputation for producing students who were good people, not just good at regurgitating facts to pass tests. That was because of the teachers it had, and when it came to that, Mrs. Hill wasn’t just good. She was the standard by which you could judge the others. There were others who were as good as she was. But none better.
There’ll never be another June Hill. The best I can hope, for my sons’ sake, is that they’ll run across two or three teachers who are as good as she was. Or even almost as good.