Elegy for My English Teachers

TO this day, I swear the only reason I got through Kathryn Wenzel's 9th grade English course was because I was taking Winifred Jones' beginning Latin course at the same time. In those days English's rules were about the same as Latin's.

In 10th grade, my English teacher was also my Latin teacher. I forget the Latin lessons, but I'll never forget the English lessons. H. Paul Jewells, whose nickname was "Pappy," had an array of acronyms for assignments. When we studied a part of speech we had to "DIP," that is, define, illustrate and prove. I forget what he told us about verbs, but when I started writing this essay "DIP" came right back to me. A physical fitness buff, a man with a perfect posture, he died of a heart attack shortly after retiring.

I can also recite Portia's plea for mercy from Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice, thanks to my 8th-grade English teacher, Louise Kellner. Miss Kellner became quite dramatic in her rendition and we knew that to do anything less was to invite a lower grade. Who said the quality of osmosis isn't high?

I did not do as well with Shakespeare in 12th grade because my analysis of Hamlet did not square with what my teacher had learned in college (Goucher). After all, I took the side of Hamlet's stepfather, which I wouldn't do today. I was on the right side when we read The Ugly American.

My 11th-grade English teacher was also an assistant football coach and later became a head coach at other schools. He taught us vocabulary and critical reading, which I began to doubt the day one of my buddies said an essay we had read "lacks colorful words" and he got a nod of approval from our teacher, who had just made the same observation about an earlier essay. Osmosis works again!

More than 20 years ago, I published a book on language skills, which included this observation: "And I cannot say enough good about the six high school English teachers who helped shape my attitude toward the language. Rarely can a person boast of having had six good high school English teachers."

Unfortunately, even after looking through five yearbooks, I cannot recall who the sixth teacher was, the one in 7th grade. I think it was Miss Wenzel's younger sister Irma, who was also my 8th-grade geography teacher. Irma was not as stern as Kathryn, although her standards were just as high.

Irma died in 1980. I know that because I read it in Kathryn's obituary. She was 90. She is survived by a niece and three grand nieces—and me.


  1. I found this blog very inspiring and wish that I had the same experience in school. Back in the day, my teachers were looking for ways to get me out of their class. One even said as I walked in the room: "Where do you want to go today? Art class?"

    I could have never imagined I would be fortunate enough to experience a similar learning atmosphere as you stated in your blog. That is until my experience with your class and teaching style. Your influence, approachability and encouragement have given me a greater desire to learn. Thank you.

    I anticipate that one day, you will be the topic of my blog disscussion.

  2. What wonderful memories! I can smell the polished desks and floors on the first day of school each year. Ahhhhhhhh, dear ole junior high! Abe Hassen for history – what fun. Sam Pagano for another year of history – tough but a great teacher. He sure did not put up with any nonsense. Hal Boyer for math – he knew my father well, so I had to behave in his class. Irma and Kathryn Wenzel – I immediately think subject, predicate, verb, and conjugating sentences. Charlie Hyman for science. Miss Richards for Home Ec – we drove her crazy. Algebra was Russell Teter, I think. And Tony Sarli was study hall for me. But now our dear ole junior high is apartments. Guess that ole saying “you can never go back,” is true. (Heck, they leveled my North Ward Elementary School for a parking lot.)

    And then the glory days of Tamaqua High School. Woohoo – of course Pappy Jewells is the most outstanding teacher of all. I’ll never forget being in driver’s ed and telling Nick Young the only thing I did not know for Mr. Jewell’s class was reciting O Tannenbaum. Big mistake. One guess what I was called on to recite in Latin class! And when he’d get angry he would start yelling at us in Old English! They don’t make teachers like him anymore.

    Hoot Gibson for English was a real hoot! Billy Klotz livened up every class of hers (poor woman!). Dick Jones for P.O.D. Mary Brennan for French. To this day I think of her when I hear the French National Anthem. Joanne Paoli for phys ed. Mr. Geiger was physics. Harry Fetterman for Biology. The day I accidentally laid my coat on top of his butterfly collection was not a good day.

    But every memory is a nice memory. Life was so simple then – walking down two flights of iron steps and then up more iron steps on the other side of Broad Street to get to school. Lois Brobst and I walked across the coal mountains to Coaldale one Saturday. OK, so we grossly underestimated how far it was. But we made it there and back home. Evenings were hanging out at The Napoli and weekends were Wentzel’s dances. We are so lucky to have such a childhood. I, too, cannot say enough good of Tamaqua Junior and Senior High School. Thanks to The Spectator for the memories.

  3. This blog got me thinking about some of the teachers who had a lasting impact on me (like Mr. Clark--9th grade geography ... ). Some were very good, and some were very bad. I ended up being interested in how I learned some very, very important lessons from the bad teachers, too, though I did not realize it at the time!