Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Quote of the Day (Thomas Wolfe, to His Favorite Teacher)

“I was without a home—a vagabond since I was seven—with two roofs and no home. I moved inward on that house of death and tumult from room to room, as the boarders came with their dollar a day, and their constant rocking on the porch. My overloaded heart was bursting with its packed weight of loneliness and terror; I was strangling, without speech, without articulation, in my own secretions—groping like a blind sea-thing with no eyes and a thousand feelers toward light, toward life, toward beauty and order, out of that hell of chaos, greed, and cheap ugliness—and then I found you, when else I should have died, you mother of my spirit who fed me with light. Do you think I have forgotten? Do you think I ever will?” —Thomas Wolfe, letter of May 30, 1927, to his former teacher, Margaret Roberts, in The Letters of Thomas Wolfe, edited by Elizabeth Nowell (1956)

In this season of graduations and moving on from one grade to another, most of us, if we have amounted to anything in life, can remember a teacher who glimpsed possibilities that we never knew we had. Sometimes we tell them what they mean to us; more often, they die or move on to who knows where before we can express what a difference they made in our lives.

Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938) was one who got the chance to thank his teacher, and as seen above, he did not squander the opportunity. He was a gangling boy of 11 when the Asheville, N.C. schoolteacher Margaret Roberts picked his paper out of 60 in a writing contest and told her husband, “This boy, Tom Wolfe, is a genius! And I want him for our school next year.” For the next four years, at Orange Street School, where her husband John was principal, Margaret fired Wolfe’s imagination. The boy needed that stimulation because his home environment, a boardinghouse called Old Kentucky Home, was so chaotic that Wolfe slept in a different bed each night because of his mother’s need to accommodate visitors.

Wolfe being Wolfe, he had to turn Ms. Roberts into a character, in the novel that made his reputation and made him persona non grata in Asheville for awhile, Look Homeward, Angel. His depiction of her husband as someone who didn’t measure up to his wife’s sensitive spirit hurt her and led to a seven-year break in her friendship with her best student. But they reconciled again before his untimely death.

None of us can summon all the words and thoughts Wolfe showered on "the mother of my spirit." But a thank-you to those holding among the most thankless jobs in the country--the ones who motivated and inspired us when we needed it most--wouldn't hurt.

(The image accompanying this post was taken of Wolfe in 1937 by photographer Carl Van Vechten, and is now part of the Van Vechten Collection in the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress.)

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