The McKinley Teachers
Ruth McClain, a 1960 graduate of McKinley, is a professor at Ohio University in Columbus, Ohio. She teaches English, writing, humanities and literature at the university. For 37 years she was either in public education at the secondary level or teaching out of the country in Mexico and New Guinea.
Someone once told me that if a child has two or three truly gifted teachers in a lifetime, that child is truly blessed. In remembering Mrs. Lee, I am quite positive that her patience, integrity, and love of language have followed me through the years to culminate in a tribute worthy of a teacher whose passion for words molded to some degree my own desire to teach. -- Ruth McClain

Tribute to Mrs. Lee

Spring had finally come to the Midwest replacing the bitter cold of the winter. It felt like a time of renewal invigorating both students and faculty at McKinley High School. With books in one arm, I made my way to my first period class and, from the end of the hall, I saw Mrs. Lee, my American literature teacher approaching with a book under her own arm. She stopped me just outside the auditorium and gave me a copy of MacKinlay Kantor’s "Andersonville". Too many years have passed since that day for me to recall the exact circumstances, but I must have expressed an interest in the Civil War prompting her to recommend the book. Eagerly, I took the book home and, finding a secluded corner, read it voraciously—particularly savoring the passage that dealt with the assault of Laurel Tebbs, the protagonist who wanders too near the infamous Southern prisoner of war camp.

A few days later, Mrs. Lee approached me in the school corridor. I knew immediately that she was going to question me about that book. She took me aside and even yet, I hear her words and see the worried look on her face as she confided to me that her husband had scolded her severely concerning her choice of books to give to a sixteen year-old schoolgirl. “What were you thinking of to give a banned book to one of your students! Do you want to lose your job?” Mrs. Lee’s husband had questioned her. Because of the brutality in Andersonville, Mrs. Lee and I purposed to keep the book exchange a secret, and I suppose I felt a bit different in my secret knowledge as if I breathed superior air.

I never thought much about her husband’s objections to the book after that—at least, not until many years had passed, and I, myself, had begun to teach. Only then, did I realize what risks she had taken. She had gone out of her way to share her love of language and the beginning of my understanding that literature enlightens life.

One morning, not long after this incident, Mrs. Lee came to class with her arm bandaged in a sling. Of course, we all wanted to know what had happened to her. “Well,” she said, “yesterday, when I was leaving school, I had an armload of books and papers and, instead of making two trips to my car, I thought I could carry it all in one load. On my way down, I tripped and fell all the way down the stairs to the first floor landing.”

I’m sure we were all delighted to have this diversion from Emerson’s essays, and so we pressed her for details. “If I had been more careful,” she told us, “I wouldn’t have fallen.”
From the side of the room, one of the girls spoke up telling Mrs. Lee that it wouldn’t have mattered at all if she had been more careful, for she would have fallen anyway. She simply was predestined to do so on that given day. As the class listened to the debate that ensued between teacher and student, I’m sure that, at the time, all we cared about was that we were getting a break.

It wasn’t until years later that I recalled that incident as five of my own advanced composition students and I made our way from our small rural high school to Columbus, Ohio, to engage in a project on censorship. As I drove and listened to one of my students admit that her mother had not wanted her to read "Catcher in the Rye"—a novel we happened to be studying in class, I recalled that day when Mrs. Lee and my own classmate had engaged in civil discourse. What I had observed that morning at McKinley High School was one of the greatest lessons I have ever learned; namely, that people whose philosophical ideas differ can debate with civility and without malice. This is the consciousness to which Mrs. Lee unconsciously introduced me.

Emily Dickinson, one of Mrs. Lee’s favorite poets, wrote...

How many flowers fail in wood
Or perish from the hill
Without the privilege to know
That they are beautiful.

I will never know whether or not Mrs. Lee feared censorship, but the voices we hear calling for censorship are as old as antiquity yet as fresh as this moment. Through Mrs. Lee’s generous sharing of a controversial book, I was “privileged to know” that if students are to develop critical thinking skills, they must be exposed to a diversity of ideas, and I have, in part, Mrs. Lee to thank for this. Not only did Mrs. Lee help me discover myself as a writer, she also quietly instilled within me the joy of knowing what I later learned from the great southern writer Eudora Welty that "all serious daring starts from within."

-- Ruth McClain, '60
rmcclain@bright.net