My best teacher

25th August 2000 at 01:00
Miss E Lillian Ricker was never my class teacher, but she taught me so many of the basics of writing that, looking back, I realise she was my first editor.

She was as austere as the presence of that first-name initial, certainly not the lovable Goodbye Mr Chips kind of teacher. She had a reputation as a tough but fair marker. However, she did have a flair for the dramatic. When I was a student at Leominster high school in Massachusetts, she was in charge of student theatre production in addition to her duties as an English teacher. We met when I tried for a part in a historical pageant.

I usually spent my spare time reading the great contemporary writers I had discovered at the public library, and scribbling with pen and paper at the kitchen table at home. We were a family of seven children and there was little privacy in the five-room tenement where we lived with my father and mother. But somehow I found the time and the space to put down on paper all the emotions that seethed and boiled within me.

I have forgotten how Miss Ricker discovered that I burned to be a writer. She entered my life at the moment I had discovered similes and metaphors, those figures of speech that brought spark and dazzle to the page. Immersing myself in the tumultuous prose of Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938), I became drunk on his abundance of adjectives and adverbs and sought to emulate him.

Miss Ricker asked to see some of my writing. I remember going home and writing feverishly. I was thrilled to have found an audience besides my mother. (My mother always praised my writing but I knew that she read it through biased, loving eyes.) Despite Miss Ricker's reputation as a no-nonsense teacher, I looked forward to showing her my work, hungry for an outside audience.

I presented her with my work before classes started in the morning. Later, I was handed a note asking me to meet her after school. I approached her classroom as the corridors echoed with the thundering footsteps of students eager to leave the building.

She greeted me with the subdued smile hat was her hallmark. I sat down beside her. She held a blue pencil in her hand. And as she read my words aloud, she wielded the pencil with bold strokes, obliterating this word and that phrase. I felt the heat of blood in my cheeks.

I don't remember her exact words but their essence was: Robert, you have talent but you must find your own voice, must be yourself when you sit down to write. She asked me about my favourite writer. I answered, of course, Thomas Wolfe.

Did she introduce me to Hemingway? Perhaps. I remember discovering him at that time, stunned by the spare prose that flowed like a clear mountain stream in contrast to Wolfe's torrent of words.

During our sessions, she taught me simplicity. She was a constant critic but she often shook her head in sweet amazement as she read my words. Without extravagant praise, she let me know that she admired my work.

Most of all, she treated me as a writer. I was not a schoolyard hero or an outstanding athlete or even a top student, but I clung to my identity as a writer, hoping that I was not just a bewildered kid in a baffling world but someone who could capture parts of that world on paper. Miss Ricker affirmed that identity. In her busy teacher's world, she reserved time for me, week after week, guiding me, giving me confidence by devoting so many of her hours to my efforts.


1925 Born in Leominster, Massachusetts, US

1942 Graduates from Leominster High School

1944-45 Attends Fitchburg State College, Massachusetts

1946 Starts a 30-year career in journalism as a radio scriptwriter in Worcester, Massachusetts, later becomes associate editor and columnist at the Fitchburg Sentinel and Enterprise

1960 Publishes Now and at the Hour, the first of three novels for adults

1974 Publishes The Chocolate War, the first of 15 novels for teenagers

2000 His latest book, Frenchtown Summer, is published in paperback by Puffin

July 2000 A guest speaker in London at the Between the Covers conferences for children's librarians

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