I am writing a post about the literature that had a significant effect in creating who I am today. And while writing it, I could not help but think of the woman who introduced me to some of the best of it: my high school English teacher, Mrs. Cogar. I wrote about her in my Live Journal in 2004, and decided to repost here what I had written then:
Yesterday, the Rocket Scientist and I and the kids went snow-tubing. It’s a lot of fun — you sit on an inner-tube like contraption which tows you to the top of the hill, and then you lie down on your stomach and slide down.
Once, when I was being towed on the lift up to the top of the hill, I looked over and saw two crows sitting in a bare-limbed tree. It was staggeringly beautiful — two dark birds, the dark naked tree branches, surrounding by the swirling white flakes, against the white hill. And, all at once, I thought of Mrs. Cogar.
Mrs. Joanne Cogar was my high school English teacher. She walked into the first day of Advanced Composition 1 and said “All those rumors you hear about me are false. I never bite people, and even if I do, I start frothing at the mouth first, and you have a good head start on getting out the door.” She did not suffer fools gladly, and was considered a holy terror by much of the student body. I adored her.
I treasured the B+ I got in her AP English class more than the As I received in History or Math. When we were told by the guidance counselor during class one day that the school board was considering making AP English independent study for second semester, available only to students who had an A in the class, I broke down and wept openly.*
She introduced me to Shakespeare and Faulkner and Eugene O’Neill and John Steinbeck. She opened up worlds to me that had I had never thought could exist. She made me understand how great literature could change lives. She taught me to read critically, but never to let that criticality get in the way of the joy of reading.
Just as importantly, she introduced me to Strunk and White, and made me see a well-crafted sentence as a thing of beauty. If I write at all well today, Mrs. Cogar is one of the biggest reasons. (If I write at all persuasively, I have various professors at Stanford Law School to thank.)
And I trusted her. She was the only teacher I told about the CAT scan that had been taken because my doctor thought the blackouts and spells of disorientation I was having could be caused by a brain tumor, like the brain tumor that had killed my older sister. She was the first person — before my parents, even — I went to when I received my college acceptance letters. When I told her that Cornell and Wellesley had accepted me, but that Princeton had not, her response was “Who do they think they are?” (My answer, if I recall correctly, was that they were Princeton and could refuse anyone they damn well chose.)
Being young and callow and stupid, I did not keep in touch. I have no idea where she is or even if she is alive.
But I thought of her on Friday, when I saw those two birds in that tree.
Among the poems we studied during the poetry unit in AP English was Robert Frost’s “Dust of Snow”. Being typical teenagers, we kept reading death imagery and angst into those few lines (after all, it had hemlock and crows — how could that not be death symbolism?). Mrs. Cogar was nearly tearing her hair out — “No! No! A hemlock tree has nothing to do with the hemlock that Socrates drank! You’re overanalyzing, people!” — trying to help us understand how the beauty of a black bird and a dark tree against white snow could make everything better.
We just couldn’t get it. How could we? We were growing up in Florida. For most of us, snow was only something we had read about in a book somewhere. We had crows, but they tended to get overshadowed by great snowy egrets and blue herons. And let’s face it, a crow perched in a pine tree against a background of kudzu just doesn’t have the same overwhelming emotional appeal. And even though I saw snow in college — a lot of it — I was too busy being angsty and pretentious and all the other things that people who have more intelligence than common sense are prone to being to notice something as simply beautiful as birds in a tree.
But Friday, when my breath caught in my throat at the stark beauty of black birds silhouetted against swirling flakes of snow, I wished that somehow, somewhere, I could tell her:
Mrs. Cogar, I understand the poem now. And thank you.