Yesterday one of my highschool classmates forwarded an obituary of Cecily Spaulding. Miss Spaulding was my speech teacher at Austin High School in Austin, Minnesota, in 1953-54. She taught me to never say “uh” between thoughts, to speak clearly and concisely, and to be well prepared for my audience. Even more important than how to deliver a speech, she taught me to value solid content. I learned to appreciate speeches with depth, speeches that made me think and question. At the time, I never dreamed how useful her instruction would be in my future career.
I remember giving one speech based on the quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.” Miss Spaulding encouraged me to explore my dawning realization that it’s okay to be different. Teens in general want desperately to be accepted by their peers. Miss Spaulding taught me to be true to myself, regardless of what others were doing.
Miss Spaulding also directed the high school plays, and I tried out for all of them. Sometimes I got a part; sometimes I didn’t. If I wasn’t cast, I worked backstage. I learned to love the theater and the feeling of community that develops between those who stage a production.
I was astonished to learn from the obituary that my former teacher was only ten years older than I am. When I was in high school, the age difference seemed far greater.
Cecily Spaulding is the only person on whom I completely based one of my characters. She was the model for Miss Fenton, the teacher in Cages. When Cages was published, in 1991, I found an address for Miss Spaulding and sent her a copy of the book, along with a letter explaining that she was the inspiration for my character. I also told her how much I valued what she had taught me and how useful that knowledge had been.
I saw her once a few years later when I returned to Austin High School to speak to the Language Arts students. Miss Spaulding came to hear my talk and we had a lovely chat afterward.
I’m writing about Miss Spaulding today to honor her memory and also because many teachers read this blog. Teachers, I want you to know that your efforts do bear fruit. Your words and actions matter in the future lives of your students. Decades from now, some will remember you vividly and give you credit for being a positive influence in their lives.
Thank you, teachers. Thank you, Miss Spaulding.