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— A few weeks ago, we were sitting in our church pew when a visiting couple came in and sat directly in front of us. During Dr.Ann Webb’s children’s talk, I overheard the lady whisper to her husband, “She must be a teacher, too.” I leaned forward to whisper to her, “She is! We can always recognize one another, can’t we? The commanding voice and the rapport with young people.”

Funny how old memories come back to haunt you in sleep. Last night, I dreamed about Mrs. Cochran.

Perhaps I’ve mentioned her briefly before since she was my favorite teacher.

This is not “National Teacher’s Appreciation Day,” but I’d like to pay tribute to her and all teachers like her. Thankfully, while she was still alive, I was able to tell her how much I loved her and how she’d been a leading influence in my life.

Lela Cochran was born into a poor farm family in the 30’s. She was a smart child and her teachers in Southeast Arkansas recognized her promise. They saw to it that she received further education after high school, and she was able to enter Arkansas Teacher’s College (now UCA) in Conway.

She did not disappoint them. She did well there. Then during the late 40’s, a “new fear” began to plague our state.

Polio.

She contracted the disease before the new Salk vaccine was discovered and her legs and lower torso began to wither in its terrible grasp.

Did she give up her dream of teaching? NOT Lela Cochran.

She struggled through its earliest stages, and persisted with “exercises” she devised for herself until she was able to return to college and finish her schooling in a wheelchair. She continued vigorous workouts with her legs until her wheelchair was discarded for a walking cane. With halting, slow steps she entered her first classroom in a small town and taught there for two years. There she married Mr. Cochran.

Ten years later, they moved to Carthage. I was 15 and entering my sophomore year in high school when she came to us. I’ll never forget the great impact she had on my life.

That year, she became my science teacher and the following year, she became my English II teacher. Even counting my later college years, I can truly say no one (other than parents) ever taught me so much.

Walking into her classroom the first week of September 1959, I learned immediately I had met someone of great knowledge and caring. She was the consummate teacher. She began by telling us that, though we were now in high school, she had some basics to teach us.

And she did.

Because of her instruction, I can still to this day, parse. For you younger readers, this means I can still break apart sentences and I can diagram complex ones.

I know the difference between gerunds and infinitives.

We were forced to memorize parts of speech and grammatical rules. Unfortunately, I do write as I speak..in exclamations points, dots and dashes and occasional fragments!

“What do you mean you are ‘fixing’ to do something??” She would screech! “‘To fix’ is a verbal meaning to MEND–not that you are about to go somewhere or tend to a task!”

“What did you say—‘I’ve got to?’ Think about that contraction! You wouldn’t say ‘I have got’–it’s the same thing!”

“Never say ‘I taken’ in my presence!”

She had many more pet peeves she’d point out to help us rid our language of slang and common usage we’d grown up hearing.

I thought of her in the 80’s when “Valley Girl” talk became popular. “Go” became common usage for “say” or “said.” The word “like” was overused and without meaning. Example: “Mary GOES, ‘Wasn’t last night awesome?’” And I GO, “I was Like WOW!” Thus, the over-use of phrases/buzz words she would deem trite and unacceptable in writing: ‘awesome,’ ‘ amazing,’ ‘smoking,’ ‘chill,’ ‘twisted,’ etc.

Had cell phones been popular then, she would have thrown them right out the open window if she saw one as a distraction.

That’s what she did with the newly popular ball point pens the boys “clicked” during class.

During second semester, she thought we were ready for writing. Her first assignment was to write a good sentence. Next, we learned to write a paragraph from a strong topic sentence.

This mastered, we were assigned the “short story” - our choice of subject. Stories would be graded on the following: Grammar usage, sentence construction, interest-grabbing introduction and establishment of setting, plot and climax. This began my introduction to a new interest that’s remained with me throughout the years. We were given a full week to compose the story.

Each night, I stayed up into the wee hours working on it until at last I was pleased with the results of my labor…(trite phrase, she’d warn!) Handing it in the following Monday, I was already anticipating an A+. Yet, when the papers were returned on Friday, I received my first C and this note:

“Might have been a good story–the plot had credibility– but detail failed you since you did not live in the 1800’s on the banks of the Mississippi during Reconstruction years.”

When she caught me in tears, she called me to her desk and hugged me. “Brenda, you show signs of writing talent, but fiction requires much research. You are good, but you must only write about what you KNOW and have LIVED. Only then will your writing become real to the reader. Trust me.”

Some 59 years later, I remain thankful for that advice. This April, I received my fourth writing award: First place in humorous writing from the South Texas Press Association for Better Newspapers.

I have never had a class in journalism or in creative writing, but I did have Lela Cochran.

(Brenda Miles is an award winning columnist and author living in Hot Springs Village, Arkansas. She responds to all mail sent to brenstar@att.net.)

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