Plain-faced, willowy, slightly stooped, mousy hair, no make-up, Arraga Young was nobody’s idea of pretty or fun. She had migraines, which sometimes made her seem tired and out of sorts, but in the four years she was my teacher, I don’t remember her missing a single day of school. In her classroom something happened—I can’t say what, because it wasn’t warmth, charm, charisma, drama, en-thusiasm, or even expert teaching skills, it was just seriousness of a kind we got nowhere else. No one gave us attention like hers—focused, respectful, intensely demanding, as if she could see into our future lives.
Occasionally I noticed her face showing displeasure, but I never saw her lose her temper. Her composure was rock-solid. She was deter-mined to help us Appalachian kids have what we’d need when we were no longer her students. I suspect she knew very well that we’d have little chance of success in the greater world unless she could give us the language of grown-ups—the power to speak it, write it, and think in it.
My first look at Mrs.Young must have been when I walked into her classroom for the first time. I was an eighth-grader with a flat-top, 13 years old, six feet tall, skinny, not particu-larly coordinated, precocious, mouthy, with acne decorating my face, and my hormones motivating me to get the attention of girls. I lived in Ivanhoe, Virginia—20 miles out in the county. There were some 40 of us who were bussed from houses on dirt roads into the “county seat” to attend the newly consolidated George Wythe High School. This would have been in the fall of 1954. Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” and Fats Domino’s “Blue Monday” had made it onto radio station wyve so that even we hicks had a clue about what it was to be cool in high school.
Because my father and grandfather and grandmother and aunt had had some college background—and because ours was considered one of the four or five “nice families”—it was assumed I would go to college. No one forced my brothers and me to read, but because our parents read to us and with us and because our house was full of books, we enjoyed reading—the Tarzan volumes, the Doctor Doolittle and Bobbsey Twins books, comic books, the Edgar Allan Poe tales… We had no TV until I was twelve.
Mrs.Young must have been in her mid-forties, and though she was married, she had no children of her own. Some of my classmates accused me of having a crush on her, which I never denied. I knew “crush” wasn’t the right word, but I also knew I admired her in a way I didn’t admire anyone else. She fell into no category with which I was familiar.
We quickly got used to how much she expected of us and to how carefully she read and graded our work. She was never arbitrary, never unfair in her judgments. I think most of us sensed something deeply felt emanating from her, even the worst lout among us. Not exactly love, it was more like a rigorous hope. In her fashion, Arraga Young wholly gave herself to us, and we were not such young fools that we couldn’t respond.
Once t.w. Alley, our All State tackle, a head taller than her and half a whole person bigger, got mouthy, and what I remember is this: Mrs. Young walked from behind her desk straight to where he sat, and asked him to stand up. He did—a boulder of a boy, who didn’t have to listen to any adult, a wild and reckless boy who respected few people anywhere—sullenly hauled himself up out of his seat and stood before her. She had to tilt her head up to do so, but she looked him straight in the face at least a full minute, then said, “Sit down, please, Thomas,” and he did. And that was it, no more trouble from t.w. ever again.
Although she wasn’t especially talented at teaching literature, she was oddly wonderful in teaching us how to diagram sentences, an activity that appealed to a few of us and that she made bearable to those who didn’t care for it. She kept challenging us with more and more intricate sentences. I can see her smiling as we—the whole class—struggled with where in our visual rendering to put a centuries-old phrasing like “laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
If not for Arraga Young, I’d have split my infinitives, comma-spliced my sentences, thought poetry was for sissies, and generally had to live without the dignity and power words have given me. But it wasn’t just that—it was witnessing someone who professionally lived by what her heart told her to do and say. I recognized when my parents spoke to me out of their familial connection and when my teachers spoke to me out of their professional obligation. But what often I heard in Mrs. Young’s communication was a real person revealing herself. What I mean is that—in spite of our differences in age and sex, in spite of our being strangers to each other in a hundred ways—from her language I caught an intense glimpse of Arraga Young and felt the intimate buzz of meaningful communication.
It took me a while to understand what she’d given me. At the University of Virginia I was a dreadful student because I was lazy, undisciplined, and unequipped to deal with the freedom of life in Charlottesville. I was a fool of a college boy. But the papers I wrote generally received good grades, especially if I put a little effort into writing them and turned them in on time. I didn’t know what to make of that. I’d thought I was a country kid incapable of doing well at a major university. Only after I started teaching creative writing at the University of Vermont did I realize that the writing ability she’d instilled in me could have turned me into a Dean’s List student if I’d just used it seriously.
I stayed in touch with Mrs. Young years after I’d graduated and had the pleasure of sending her copies of journals that had published stories and poems of mine—for which she always sent me thank-you notes in her meticulously clear handwriting. Trying to make literary art makes a person a little strange. After a while you come to understand that your writing separates you from your family, your old friends, and your former community. And yet you want them to recognize who you’ve become and what you’ve managed to accomplish. Mrs.Young was the one person who could appreciate what it meant for me to become a writer. I wanted her approval.
Sometime around 1978 I sent her a poem I’d written about some paintings I’d seen in Washington, d.c. It had just appeared in a little journal, and I’d considered it a breakthrough. She answered almost immediately, noted some aspects of the composition she appreciated—but then she wrote, “David, please forgive me for being such a picky reader, but you’ve used a plural verb form when you should have used the singular.” Here are the poem’s problematic lines:
O’Keefe was shy when she painted Lake George’s
blue mountains—neither a sexy calla lily
nor a bleached cattle skull are hidden
in those canvases just right for motel décor…
“When two subjects are joined by neither-nor or either-or,” she reminded me, “focus your attention on the noun closest to the verb. If it is singular, choose the singular verb. If the noun is plural, choose the plural form of the verb.”
Her correction made me blush. And it made me love her all the more for the integrity of what she felt she had to say and for the decorous phrasing she found for saying it. If I didn’t have a crush on her half a century ago, I certainly do now.
DAVID HUDDLE is the author of seven books of poetry, six books of short stories, five novels, a novella, A David Huddle Reader, and The Writing Habit. He won the 2012 Library of Virginia Award for Fiction for Nothing Can Make Me Do This and the 2013 PEN New England Award for Poetry for Blacksnake at the Family Reunion.