Friday, November 25, 2016

Goodbye, Mrs. Riddell

A few days ago, I found out that my favorite high school teacher had passed away. Her memorial service is being held today in New Harmony, Indiana 14 miles from where I grew up in Carmi, Illinois. I hadn't seen her since I graduated, and for that, in a way, I'm grateful. Because, you see, she is forever imprinted in my memory looking like she did in the above photograph (taken by classmate Kevin French in the spring of 1974), and that's the way I want to remember her, with her dark red hair, her piercing blue eyes and a gentle demeanor that exuded kindness and love and concern for her students.

I met Mrs. Riddell when I was a freshman. It was the fall of 1972. She taught my English class. Later, I would also have her for sophomore English as well. She cultivated in me the love of literature, the seeds of which had already been planted by other teachers: those who taught me to read; those who taught me to love to read; those who diligently taught me to write in cursive (I think I shall be forever grateful to have been taught this by a nun in a Catholic school); and those who introduced me into the mysterious and wonderful science of diagramming sentences. (That last bit is said with tongue firmly in cheek.)

Mrs. Riddell built on what others had done previously. She taught me to love literature and to take the science of sentence diagramming and turn it into the art of writing. But she did more than teach me literature and self-expression through the written word.

In my sophomore year, we were required to keep a journal that Mrs. Riddell periodically read and commented on (and which I dearly wish I still had). As a result, she was perhaps the only teacher at my school that had an inkling of what was really going on in my life at that time. My parents had been going through a bitter divorce and life at home was pretty much hell; plus I'd come to the discomfiting realization that I was attracted to boys, not girls, and I didn't have a clue what to do about it. I do remember writing in my journal, almost wistfully, about the prospect of taking my own life. Not that I would have done it. But I thought about it, and I wrote about it in my journal - how peaceful that might be and how it seemed, in a way, a very logical way of dealing with ... things.

I never had a "heart to heart" talk with Mrs. Riddell about what was going on in my life outside school, at least not that I recall. But I knew she knew - at least some of it - and she knew that I knew she knew. Her gentle, loving nature often reached out and touched me without a word being spoken between us. She was a source of gentleness and caring in my life when I sorely needed it. She also made me feel that I could truly be myself, that I could aspire to things that others might deem silly or impractical or foolish (like being a writer when I grew up). Just being in her class lifted my spirits and made me feel human ... and loved for who I was.

So, thank you, Mrs. Riddell. Happy travels as you continue your journey.


  1. Thank you so much for this beautifully written piece about my mother, Audree Riddell. It was wonderful to hear your recollections of her as a teacher in the 1970s. Her professional life was very important to her but of course to me, as her child, her job was somewhat opaque. Finding out what an impact she had on you as a teenager was absolutely inspiring. It opened up a side of her life that I hadn't had much access to or knowledge about. Thanks for writing this.
    Jill Riddell

    1. Thank you for leaving a comment, Jill. I am honored and pleased that my few recollections meant something to you.