Thursday, October 16, 2008

Maggie Mileski, Teacher and Mentor

Maggie Mileski, 1972Having been on the internet now for over eight fourteen years, you would think that I would stop being surprised at the unusual people I meet, the friendships I find, and how much I still learn. I am very lucky to have a career that allows me to spend so much time on the computer, and I'm doubly blessed to be able to write well enough to convey my thoughts and feelings at the same time I'm doing my job. In fact, the skills I learned in high school in spelling, grammar, and communication are what enabled me to work at something I enjoy so much and find so rewarding every day.

In 1972, the innocent part of the Age of Aquarius was fading. The sweet bubblegum music of the early Beatles and the Monkees had changed into hard, drug-promoting, disillusioned songs like "Taxi" and "A Horse With No Name". The Beatles had broken up, Nixon was elected as President, the war in Vietnam was still raging, and it seemed like half the young people were either dead, bombed out their minds, or disgusted with everything society had to offer.

I was only 16 years old, but I considered myself an adult and a "hippie". I reveled in the same anger that the older kids who had been so affected by the war were feeling. I never fit in with the popular group - the cheerleaders, athletes and rich kids that seemed to be immune to the world outside of Ragsdale High School and the society that we hippies loved to hate.


Pat McCrory, Charlotte NC MayorThe "Socs" actually produced, at least, one prodigy - Pat McCrory. Anyone remember the movie called The Outsiders? Even in the south, much of that movie was truly the way it was in those days! Anyway, he's been the Mayor of Charlotte, and is now governor. I think the southern Republicans are priming him for a Presidential run...wouldn't surprise me. Pat and a few of his friends were squeaky clean, unfailingly sweet and optimistic, and went through their high school years seemingly oblivious to the drugs, protest marching, and anarchy that the Woodstock generation was going through. He and his brother Phil were class presidents about the entire time we were in school, I think. So he may be destined. No offense, but I hope not. His popularity is not what it was when he was a kid.

Anyway, a huge influence in my life entered the scene that year. Mrs. Maggie Mileski, teacher of English, Grammar, and Literature. She was about 5 ft tall, had a bit of an accent, brooked no nonsense, had a sparkle in her eyes and loved her chosen profession. She may have even loved those rebellious teenagers that sulked into her class with huge bell bottoms, fringed vests, bells tinkling, and often glazed-over eyes. She didn't seem to distinguish between the rich ones with the Izod labels and the misfits, either. She was determined we were going to learn how to spell and write, and she was going to teach us.

And I think I can honestly say that even the worst kids that came through her class did learn. I would bet that any kid who spent a year or so with Mrs. Mileski has better English skills to this day than half the population.

I was good at all things language anyway. My mother did huge crossword puzzles every day for fun, and my father was a math whiz. Unfortunately, I inherited none of his skills, but I did get hers. So having the best English teacher in the U.S. was exciting and inspiring for me. She was as tough as nails and even the meanest overgrown young hulks came to respect her very quickly. She was also extremely smart, and you knew it and felt it. And her non-discriminating interest in her students presented us with an adult authority figure that we couldn't complain about or dislike!

An entire generation of kids that attended Ragsdale High School in Jamestown, North Carolina learned how to spell, how to speak less like a typical southerner, how to diagram sentences, and how to write better during the years that this tiny little ball of fire taught English in high school. I give her credit for most of the skills that gave me a better life, and calmed my rebellious spirit with self-respect and a sense of accomplishment.

I once had an email correspondence with a rather famous lady.

Jane Straus was the "Miss Manners" of grammar and punctuation in America. A life coach as well as an English teacher, Jane wrote the "Blue Book of Grammar", one of the best reference books a writer can have. She's been interviewed on many television shows and used to put out a great free newsletter with tips and rules about punctuation, word usage, and common spelling errors. After her death, the family continued her legacy. I would recommend anyone who blogs or works with a professional website to sign up for that newsletter. In several back-and-forth emails with Jane, I mentioned Mrs. Mileski. This prompted me to Google her and perhaps find a way to show her this article I am now writing.

Much to my sorrow and disappointment, the first thing I found was her eulogy, written by a Catholic Priest that was also one of her students in the 80's, and came to love her as I did. His tribute to Maggie Mileski made me cry, but also made me see how truly fortunate I was to have been one of the privileged ones who knew this amazing lady. There's no telling how many lives she touched, and she may well have been part of the reason that Pat McCrory found his success in politics. When he's running for President one day, Mrs. Mileski's sparkling brown eyes may look down on him with pride for having done her job well and making a difference in so many lives. I hope her influence will guide him more than his chosen political party.


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