Blogs > Cliopatria > The Life Changer

Oct 4, 2006 7:34 am

The Life Changer

Yesterday I visited Westminster - Thurber [Retirement ] Community here in Columbus, to give the first of four classes in a mini-course on the History of War. The course is under the auspices of an initiative called OWLS -- Older, Wiser, Lifelong Scholars. This is its eleventh year in operation.

At the outset of the class, I noticed that the fellow introducing me had in his hands a copy of my first book, The Hard Hand of War. I assumed he intended merely to waggle it at the fifty audience members by way of confirming that I was indeed a bona fide military historian.

After a very generous summary of my career to date, he held up the book."There's something very special about this book, this copy," he said."It is inscribed on the title page, 'For Billie, with gratitude.' Billie Cranford happens to live in Thurber Towers -- the same Billie. The book is dedicated to her and two other of his former teachers, and all this makes a very special kind of connectedness that we are enjoying this afternoon. And I would just like to read a couple of lines from the acknowledgments.

"'As my ninth grade English teacher, Billie Cranford supported both my writing and historical interests, encouraged me to think in terms of publication, and even excused me from regular assignments to undertake an independent writing project that formed my first attempt to grapple with the sweep of the Civil War.' And there's a bit more."

He turned to me and said,"Did we surprise you?"

It had just hit me that Billie Cranford must be in the room. I looked and, sure enough, she was.

"Yeah," was all I could say. The room erupted into laughter and then applause. I walked over to Billie and hugged her for a long time."Ah, that's a wonderful surprise," I said."Thanks. Thanks for everything," I said.

Her eyes were gleaming with tears."Thank you," she said.

The fellow who introduced me completed his remarks by talking briefly about the origins of the History of War course, then turned over the floor to me.

I made sure my microphone was on, then began,"Well, I just -- I'm very pleased to be here, and I was very flattered to be invited. But to have Billie here is just a really unexpected pleasure and so much more than that; I think I'm gonna cry. There are probably three people in the world without whose help I would be doing something very, very different. I don't know what it would be, but I know that it's the kind of thing that I wouldn't have enjoyed as much, I wouldn't have had as fulfilling a life, and so forth. I think as many of you know, in life there are a few people who are really in your corner and supportive, and then there are a lot of people who tell you, That dream you've got? Forget about it. Grow up. Childhood must end, and you need to think in terms of something practical.

"My father loved me dearly, but when I decided to major in history, he said, 'Son, major in what you want, but minor in computer science --" the audience laughed --"which was his little way of telling me that, you know, you're going to wind up in business no matter what you think you're gonna be doing. And people like that are very well intentioned. They think that they're doing you a big favor.

"But the folks who really matter, people who are just life-changing people, are the ones who have a sense of your dream, and share it with you, and encourage you to go for it. And people like that are just as rare as rubies. And I just could not be more grateful to them and to you, Billie, because you were the first."

The audience applauded again. I got down to the business of teaching the class. Two hours later, with the first lecture behind me, I made sure to have my photo taken with Billie. Later I went up to her apartment and we chatted for a couple of hours.

Billie --"Mrs. Wilson" to me back then (Wilson because she had not yet gotten divorced) -- was thirty-seven when I entered her ninth grade English class in September 1973. She has just recently turned seventy, though to my eyes, at least, she doesn't look it. About four years ago she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease. She lives more or less independently within the retirement community, but only because her friends and family carefully look out for her.

Like many people with Alzheimer's, she can remember things from long ago, but what happened yesterday is often a blur. She has been living in the retirement community for nearly two years. Years before that, she resided for an extended period in Prague. She said several times in the course of our talk that she had just recently returned from Prague.

We talked about Blendon Junior High School, where she taught and I endured the Lord of the Flies atmosphere of early adolescence. We talked about how she had taught me to diagram sentences -- a really tedious exercise but one that gave me an unshakeable life-long grasp of proper sentence structure. We talked about her conclusion that the regular curriculum was not challenging me and her decision to have me embark on an independent writing project, which turned out to be a book on the Antietam Campaign, complete with footnotes. (My parents were initially appalled when she did this. To them it seemed a complete abdication of her responsibilities as a teacher.) I never got more than four chapters into the book, but over the years have published a number of articles that, one way or another, hearken back to it.

About an hour into our conversation, she said she had forgotten my name -- the way it sometimes happens when you've met a new acquaintance and have been talking a while, but have just realized you didn't really catch their name.

"Mark Grimsley," I said.

"I remember you," she said, nodding.

And I will never forget you, Billie.

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Oscar Chamberlain - 10/3/2006

I'm so glad that you were able to communicate with your former teacher. Such people matter so much, and we so rarely get to say "thank you" in person.

It says something about you and the impression you made upon her that your presence allowed her to cut through the fog for a while.