When June Sherman was receiving her baccalaureate degree in 1943 from the University of North Carolina, I was doing a William Blake:
My father cried, my mother wept
Into the wicked world I leapt.
Mrs. Sherman knew William Blake… he was a friend of hers. She knew Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Emily Dickenson, and the world of literature that was my comfort when I was a callow student in her Honors English class at Windsor Locks High School in the early 1960’s.
My very first production under her guidance was a book review of Dostoyevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov.” I received an A/D on the report. When I showed the paper, scarred with red ink and marginalia, to my father, he said, “I don’t understand the grade.”
“Well, the A is for content, and the D is for sentence structure and spelling.”
He wrinkled his brow – spelling was my personal demon – but I could see he was half-pleased.
The paper was covered with remarks made by Mrs. Sherman, and I paid particular attention to them – because she was brilliant, in a quiet, modest way. Her remarks, I thought, might easily have been written by Dostoyevsky himself. They pointed me in positive directions, and I knew immediately that she had read and liked Dostoyevsky, as I did. Later, when in college, I got hold of “The Diary of a Writer,” a literary and political journal kept by Dostoyevsky that included pieces he had written for a publication he started with his brother; I sensed that Mrs. Sherman had also read the Diary.
I made two speeches before larger audiences at the High School. Such activities were mandatory. My inveterate shyness was always a problem, but she hoisted me tenderly over that hurdle. The first was a political speech on the Castro brothers, who earlier had wrested Cuba from Fulgencio Batista, a brutal dictator forced to leave Cuba when his American support collapsed in January 1959. During a prep for the speech, she stopped me twice when I had mispronounced the word “because.” I was saying BECUZ – a Windsor-Locksianism.
“No, no, Donald. The word is BE-CAUSE. It means – the CAUSE of.”
Shortly after that, I dove into etymology, and she helped me wend my way through its deadly but fascinating currents.
Mrs. Sherman died last week full of literary years; she was 93 years old at her passing.
Several years ago, I was contacted by another Sherman – no relation to June Sherman – who told me that he was a frequent reader of my columns. He wanted to get together for a cup of coffee and a little political discussion. This was done. Half way through the meal, he said he had a confession to make. He was a student years ago of my wife Andree in Ridgefield, Connecticut, and he wanted me to know that she had left a permanent mark on him. He confessed he was not the best student in High School, but Andree, he realized years later after he had chosen to home school his own children, was the most memorable teacher he had had.
“So, you want to tell her that, do you?”
“That would be nice.”
They talked together that day. In a world of joy, students would not be afraid to make contact with those people who have affected the arcs of their lives, whether they be teachers or relatives or strangers they had met in one or another of life’s busy intersections.
Before Cordelia, his only faithful daughter, is led away to prison, King Lear, broken by the betrayal of his other daughters, says to her:
No, no, no, no! Come, let’s away to prison.
We two alone will sing like birds i' th' cage.
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down
And ask of thee forgiveness. So we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news, and we’ll talk with them too—
Who loses and who wins, who’s in, who’s out—
And take upon’s the mystery of things
As if we were God’s spies. And we’ll wear out
In a walled prison packs and sects of great ones
That ebb and flow by the moon.
I was introduced to Lear by Mrs. Sherman. Here’s good advice: Don’t be silent. Tell those who have helped you along the way how grateful you are. I didn’t, and I regret it.