I had heard of Miss Carmen Walpole from other students, and I had seen her in the halls. She was a legend — strict, precise, determined — and students spoke of her with awe.
When we entered her classroom as freshmen at St. Andrew’s High School, we weren’t sure what to expect. She represented serious study of the English language.
The first day of school we weren’t disappointed. After taking attendance, Miss Walpole looked up and offered, “Does anyone know what the word mendacious means?” Then she singled out the best looking, smartest, most popular boy in the class and questioned, “Do you think Randy is mendacious?”
Our minds raced to make some logical connection between the word and Randy. By the time she had polled each student, we were on the edge of our seats. Was Randy mendacious or not?
She finally told us. Mendacious meant “given to lying.” We could hardly wait for whatever came next.
Miss Walpole had wavy silver hair. Though older, she was still very pretty, with a marvelous twinkle in her eyes. But before that first class was over, we knew she meant business. If the “mendacious” episode helped us relax, what followed made us realize we were there to learn.
“Sarah, what is the definition of a noun?” The authority in her voice made me sit up and take notice. Most teachers review these things the first week and then quiz their students. Miss Walpole made it clear that we were responsible for retaining earlier lessons.
I struggled to recall the proper definition of a noun. Normally, I could recite it cold, but normally I wasn’t answering to Miss Walpole. I breathed a sigh of relief after supplying the correct definition: a person, place, or thing.
My escape was short lived. “Sarah, what is the definition of a pronoun?” she queried. Somehow I had received the honor of defining each part of speech that day. No one could know my exhausted pride when, at the end of the ordeal, she pronounced, “Good!” And no one could know my gratitude when the bell finally rang.
We would not enter her classroom unprepared. This grand lady assessed the potential of each student and worked tirelessly to see him achieve it. The great reward of this gentle intimidation was that we learned, learned, learned. If a student gave a wrong answer, Miss Walpole would quip, “That’s the way rumors get started, my dear!”
She had an uncanny memory for who struggled with diagrams or clauses. As we’d go over examples in class, she’d fit the sentence to the person who was weak in that area. We got a good laugh from her humorous grammar posters. One of them pictured a large coin, with stick-like arms and legs, holding a broom. The caption read, “I found a penny sweeping the porch.” On the final test it was these posters that reminded us of dangling participles.
If Miss Walpole taught us discipline in English, she also taught us discipline in life. Once a student-teacher was substituting in our class. Things quickly got out of control. The young teacher enjoyed flirting with the boys who entertained her with their antics. We all joined in the chaos, and in the end, the substitute took a list of names to be given to Miss Walpole. Most students received a light punishment from Miss Walpole, but two or three of us were given after school detention for the next day.
I stayed back after class to ask Miss Walpole why we were punished more severely. It seemed so unfair. She studied me with her steel blue eyes; her tone was solemn. “I know what happened. For others it is different,” she said, “but I expected more of you.” I stood there speechless, both ashamed and proud.
I reported for detention the next day, but I really didn’t mind. I had received the ultimate compliment from Miss Walpole, and I was determined to live up to her expectations.
On the three-mile walk home from school, long after school buses had left, I thought about the whole incident.
I dreamed of goals that might be possible because, “she expected more of me.” Suddenly, I realized a car had pulled up beside me. A silver-haired teacher with a twinkle in her eye rolled down the window. “It’s a long walk home,” she said. “And I’m going that way!”
I went on to earn a scholarship to Furman University. Many were the times I was grateful for the three years in Miss Walpole’s English classes. Decades have passed since she uttered those words, “I expected more of you.” But I still hear them with gratitude and awe.
Sarah Hemingway lives in Mount Pleasant and enjoys writing, speaking and teaching on family issues. A Charleston native, she moved 19 times with her (late) Marine husband and four kids. She has taught preschool, edited book manuscripts, and her work has been published in various magazines. She has four grandchildren.