Anyone who attended Staples in the 1940s, ’50s, ’60s and ’70s knew V. Louise Higgins. The Radcliffe graduate influenced thousands of lives, as a revered English teacher and department chair.
That influence included fellow teachers and administrators, as well as students. Former colleague Karl Decker remembers V. Louise Higgins, who died last Friday at 92.
I came to the Staples English Department in September 1960, along with many other new young teachers. “V. Louise” — “Miss Higgins” of course to us unproven neophytes — had come to my classroom for my first observation.
I was ready with a great lesson, the students were ready with pencils poised for note-taking, and I did all the right things. Miss Higgins sat in back taking notes on a yellow legal pad. Class ended, students left, Miss Higgins rose with her yellow legal pad and approached me.
“Dear boy,” she said using her frequent form of address. “A fascinating class. Tell me, for I am curious — just where did you get your material?”
“My fine college notes, Miss Higgins,” I replied. “You see, I saved them in case–”
“I thought so,” she said and paused. Then: “Tell me, have you considered burning them?” And with that she left the room.
As she passed by the wastebasket, she tore off the top sheet of her yellow legal pad, crumpled it up and backboarded it off the wall into the garbage.
If VL had a supervisory, mentoring objective, it surely was to get us to develop our own expertise, to work towards our own mastery of content and teaching skills. As she put it once to me, “I want you to be able to teach that class with your hands tied behind your back and without the crutch of a lesson plan — of specious value anyway — before you.”
Three years later I held a minor administrative position at Staples and had my teaching schedule halved. VL was clearly not pleased. One day she came to my new office and asked, “Are you going to be an administrator or a teacher?” I leaned back in the arrogance of my swivel chair and said I’d give it some serious thought.
“I want that serious thought done and over with tonight and your answer on my desk tomorrow morning,” she replied. I chose teaching. “The correct choice,” she said later. “Now, about the Shakespeare selections for the sophomore classes…”
So the years at Staples passed and eventually we went our separate ways. VL retired and devoted her later years to study of the ships and seafaring days of Southport. In 1999 I quit after 43 years of teaching to become a photographer and writer for 6 years at Vermont Magazine. Then by chance we re-met when she was in residence at the famed 3030 in Bridgeport. I had begun work on a novel.
“A novel? Dear boy, do let me read your drafts,” she said. And for the next 2 years, I’d send her the chapters as they came. Her critical skills were undiminished–sharp, perceptive, acerbic and yet supportive.
“On page 145 you have a paragraph that make no sense at all…Oh, yes, and here on page 166, you have a terrible mixed metaphor…ah, there is a nice turn of phrase somewhere here…just can’t seem to find it right now…”
In one of my later calls she asked, “Where are Chapters 21 and 22?” I sent them, but no reply, no critique came. In my last call a few weeks ago, I had asked how she was doing. Prefaced with unguarded and easy laughter, she finally said, “Dear boy, I am 92 years old. At 92 you simply, don’t start getting better.”
As an ex-English teacher I suppose I should be able to end this encomium (she loved big, precise words) with some brilliant quote from the great literature. But nothing seems to come just now. All I can say is I feel as if the chain to one of my several anchors in the world has been severed and for a while, I may be somewhat adrift.
Well. I do hope she likes the metaphor.