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A teachable moment

Veterans' Day used to be known as Armistice Day, to honor an end to war

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Miss Dorothy Drew was the best, the toughest, college English teacher I ever had. If she rewarded you with an “A,” you really earned it. She taught upper-class and honors courses at Syracuse University, and I couldn’t get enough, even though her nickname was “D-minus” Drew.

 You had to be well-prepared when you entered her classroom. She would call on you for conclusions about work she had assigned, and if you hadn’t done the reading, well, you were done. If the answers she sought were not forthcoming, Miss Drew marked it down in her ready classbook, with a frown her only comment.

 She was aloof and enigmatic, but not without humor. And though she was well into her 60s, you could see she must have been beautiful in her youth, with a terrific energy and sparkle. I liked her because the class give-and-take was truly a learning experience. In short, the terror I felt in her class was worth the time spent in preparation because of the understanding it brought.

 It was 1962, my junior year, and her course that semester regarded poets from the turn of the century. We waded through them one by one, carefully dissecting their works, but it was pretty dry stuff. Even Miss Drew didn’t seem much enthused. And then she threw us a curve, taking up In Flanders Fields, the three-stanza poem written by John McCrae, a Canadian Army lieutenant colonel and medical doctor, following the horrific 17-day Second Battle of Ypres that killed thousands of soldiers during World War I—the Great War, as it was called back then. The poem was published in Punch on Dec. 8, 1915, and remains to this day among the most poignant words written about the human cost, and the folly, of war itself.

“In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses row on row,” it begins, and the images conjured up take shape immediately.

“We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders fields.”

No hidden meaning there, nor in the poem’s conclusion:

“If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.”

We took the little poem apart that day, line by line, discussing Dr. McCrae’s descriptions and intent, commenting about the imagery, and marveling at its simple integrity. It really didn’t take long to deconstruct. And then someone asked why it should mean so much to Americans, since we didn’t even enter the war for another two years and lost no soldiers at the Second Battle of Ypres. The dead there were British, Germans, French, Canadians, or Indians.

“Because it’s a metaphor as well as a chronicle,” said Miss Drew.

And then, much more softly, she added, “And because my fiancé went off to fight in that awful war, and never came home.”

Then she quietly turned away from us, and her vulnerability and pain from the recollection made time truly stand still.

It hit us like a thunderbolt: Good God, our ancient, straight-arrow college English teacher, Miss Dorothy Drew, had not only been young and in love once, she would have gotten married were it not for the War to End All Wars! We had no idea of those intimate details of her life until that instant, nor would any of us have ever guessed. Shamefully, we were too callow and self-absorbed to imagine such a revelation. We could only stare down at our desks, sad and transfixed. We were stunned.

I will always remember the absolute silence of that classroom moment, and later, the strength and dignity of the woman who had devoted her life to teaching us what was important, or should be. I think about Miss Drew every year about this time, as Veterans’ Day draws near.

“In Flanders Fields, the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row … ”

Thank you, Miss Drew. I got it.

John Winthrop has more than 20 years of experience as a news reporter, editor, and news director at WBZ-TV Boston, KRON-TV San Francisco, KCOY-TV Santa Maria, and several other television and radio stations. Send comments via the opinion editor at econnolly@newtimesslo.com.

-- John Winthrop - Cayucos

-- John Winthrop - Cayucos

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