His obituary was short. No picture. No calling hours, funeral, flowers or donations.

It’s the kind of obituary you’d easily miss when skimming the page looking for familiar names.

There was nothing in that obit this week to reflect that the man taught at Cony High School.

He wrote the obit himself, and that’s how he wanted it, his sister said. He was adamant. To the point where she asked that his name not appear in this column. Her brother would hate it.

Everyone’s seen the movie about the great teacher. The one who leads his initially recalcitrant and under-achieving students in a revolution of learning. The first good one was probably “To Sir With Love.” There have been a zillion since, some good, some bad. All with the same firebrand teacher who’s not afraid to break some rules, and some heads, to get his (or her) students to love learning.

In real life, though, the teachers who influenced us the most don’t fit that mold. I’d been thinking about that a lot recently, even before I saw that obituary.

I can’t watch a Shakespeare play — and I love Shakespeare, so I’ve seen a few — without being haunted by the ghost of Sister Catherine. Nearly four decades after she taught my siblings and me at St. Mary’s (now St. Michael) in Augusta, we cite her frequently. My guess is that there are scads of middle-aged men and women in central Maine who still quake at her memory and bear the scars of the chalk she used to throw with deadly accuracy at misbehavers.

Her passion was Shakespeare. Every year, her seventh- and eighth-grade students studied parts of a number of his plays. But her shining moment was the students’ yearly performance of “The Merchant of Venice.”

She also loved Edgar Allan Poe and on his birthday last month no fewer than three of my Facebook “friends” referenced her.

But this was not “To Sister With Love.” She was frustrated. We misbehaved. No one seemed to be having much fun. At the time I would have sworn I was learning nothing.

Her familiar ghost appeared to me once again last week at a performance of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” by the Southern Maine Association of Shakespearean Homeschoolers.

The father of some of the performers came over to say hi and mentioned that he first became familiar with Shakespeare from listening to my siblings, high school friends of his, quoting the Bard.

I’ve heard a lot of things said about my brothers and sisters over the years, but that was a first. It occurred to me that if we were spouting Shakespeare as teenagers, it came right from Sister Catherine.

Driving home that night, I had a memory of Sister Catherine I hadn’t thought of in a long time.

She mentioned to us once that she’d been 10 years old when she was sent from her home in Caribou to the convent. As a kid, I thought it was sad. Now, with the hindsight of decades, it became more than that and I saw her for who she was, a woman whose course had been set for her by someone else when she was too young to change it. But she was also a woman who found something she loved profoundly — English literature. Shakespeare, Poe, poetry — and devoted her life to trying to get a bunch of ungrateful smart alecks to share that love.

The surprise is, it worked.

I was still turning that thought over in my mind when I saw that obit this week.

His sister asked that I not mention his name, and I won’t.

But I can’t let the opportunity to pay tribute to him pass.

I can’t come up with one giant, profound life-altering quote from him, one Hollywood sound-bite thing he said that I’ve carried with me all these years, but that doesn’t lessen his influence. I told his sister that he was quietly great, and he was. He handled himself with grace and class. He rarely raised his voice. He never played favorites or demeaned anyone — a rarer thing for teachers than we’d like to think.

He pounded away at the fundamentals — every Wednesday we studied Greek and Latin roots to help our vocabulary and understanding of words. But he also taught passionately and eloquently about literature and writing. I’ve told people many times over the years he was one of the best teachers I ever had.

They’re never going to make a movie about him. There wouldn’t be enough drama, enough tension.
We’re also not going to see Demi Moore starring in “To Sister With Love.” What went on in the dusty classrooms of St. Mary’s isn’t the stuff of Hollywood.

I think most people would agree that the teachers who influenced us the most had a true passion for what they were doing and somehow made us love it, too. I think most would also agree we will never see a movie about those teachers.

We don’t need to. They were our teachers, and that’s better than any movie.
 
Maureen Milliken is news editor of the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel. Email her at [email protected] Kennebec Tales appears the first and third Thursday of the month.

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