A great teacher and an inspiration

Published 12:00 am Saturday, March 25, 2006

Sad news always seems to arrive when you least expect it.

I learned Thursday night one of my former teachers passed away earlier that day.

Mrs. Whitehurst, a graduate of Duke University who taught and inspired students and fellow teachers for 40 years, taught my English literature and composition class during my senior year in high school.

Teachers will always hold a special place in my heart. My mom taught for many years and just recently returned to the classroom and one of my grandmothers was also teacher. I witnessed the commitment and dedication necessary to excel and survive in the teaching profession.

Mrs. Whitehurst truly loved teaching literature and enjoyed watching her students fall in love with the novels and poems she taught. It takes a special teacher to convince a 17- year old male why he should he read a 19th century English novel about love and heartbreak and I know it brought a huge smile to her face when her students realized the amazing beauty and power of literature.

Before entering her class my senior year, I never really knew what to think of Mrs. Whitehurst. She was quite a bit older than most of the other teachers and seemed a little bizarre, sporting a pair of funky glasses. The chaos of high school students swarming through the halls and engulfing her as she pushed her cart of books and papers from class to class never appeared to faze her.

My English class with her was small, allowing my classmates and me to delve deep into the characters we read about and their plight. She treated us with respect and more like contemporaries rather than students, allowing us to discuss plot twists and relevant topics we would not have felt comfortable discussing in other classes.

Whether the novel was Lord of the Flies or Jane Eyre, we devoured the books and rushed back to her class to discuss the latest developments.

Mrs. Whitehurst’s greatest talent may have been her ability to teach her students to appreciate literature and improve their writing skills without allowing them to realize they were actually working. She made it interesting, relevant and fun.

She served as a mentor for many of the teachers in my home town and her peers held her in the highest esteem. Her passion for teaching literature and writing touched everyone she worked with.

I was home over the Christmas break a few years ago and my mom encouraged me to visit her. At this point Mrs. Whitehurst had retired from teaching and was struggling with a multitude of health problems. When I visited her, I was not surprised to find one of my former teachers visiting her also.

The three of us chatted about their former students and my former classmates and I updated them on where everyone was living and what everyone was doing. We laughed about some of my classmates and she shared fascinating details about some of them that I never knew.

Somehow Mrs. Whitehurst already knew where I was living and was genuinely interested to learn about what I was doing with my life.

Returning home and impressing people with your accomplishments is one thing, but aspiring to make someone proud is reserved for those people you genuinely admire.

Every action verb I obsess over and every piece of true literature I finish stirs memories of her.

Mrs. Whitehurst’s class rose above temporary goals of good grades or high Advanced Placement scores. She truly inspired her students to enjoy and understand literature.

In today’s world where technology reins supreme and teaching students math and science seems to be the priority, teachers like her serve as a reminder that literature provides understanding and knowledge abstract concepts never can.

While I write this as a tribute to Mrs. Whitehurst, I hope my words serve as an acknowledgement to all of the dedicated and passionate teachers who inspire and challenge their students to grow intellectually and achieve their dreams.