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Another View: 'Mrs. L.' showed the value of first-rate teaching, genuine caring

April 08. 2013 7:45PM

Any Google search relating to educational innovations will likely turn up thousands of articles that include references to distance learning, SmartBoards, on-line instruction and computers in the classroom. A review of this newspaper's database will certainly produce a number of entries about the Manchester School District's recent fascination with teacherless classrooms. Sadly, only a few results may contain passing reference to the increasingly quaint notion that good teachers are the essential element in a successful classroom. Let's face it, in some circles, computer chips have supplanted Mr. Chips as the centerpiece of the learning experience.

The death this week of Alma Langlois at age 93 provides us with the perfect opportunity to ponder the superiority of a flesh-and-blood teacher over the bells and whistles of a tricked-out classroom. Mrs. L., as she was affectionately known to her students, was a master English teacher in the 1960s, '70s, and '80s at Manchester High School Central and the adviser to Central's award-winning student newspaper, The Little Green, for 21 years. I was blessed to have been her student and to have spent countless hours in her presence as she taught my fellow newspaper editors and me about journalism, the English language and, most importantly, how to build a life marked by kindness to others, usefulness to society and happiness with one's self.

Despite the difference in our ages - Mrs. L. was in her 60s when I was at Central - she had a remarkable ability to empathize with her students about real and imagined teenage traumas and trials. In particular, she was very attuned to the younger generation's need to be seen, heard and respected for their opinions. I remember one conversation in which she recounted never forgetting what it was like to go into stores as a child and not be able to see over the counter. Frustrated at not being acknowledged, she told me that she was particularly exacting when it came to editing student editorials because she did not want what students had to say to go unnoticed or be discounted because of grammatical or structural errors. She respected our opinions and our right to communicate them, but she insisted they be presented in a manner that would have passed muster in the pages of a "real" newspaper.

In a front-page tribute to Mrs. L. that The Union Leader published on the day she retired nearly 30 years ago, a number of students referred to her as their "friend." While she engendered the affection of her students (the phrase "second mother" came up a great deal in that same article) and cultivated an atmosphere of informality in her classroom and the newspaper office, she was not the type of teacher who tried to form bonds with students by being "cool."

Make no mistake about it: there was nothing "cool" about Mrs. L. She wore practical pant suits and sensible shoes, drove a brown Dodge Dart (the official car of the public school teacher at the time), and reveled in her lack of knowledge about pop culture. (She once commented that she was lucky that sometime in the '60s an editor had told her to simply reply "the Stones" when asked to identify her favorite band. "I have been able to use that answer for 30 years," she joked.) What some mistook for mere friendliness was actually a profound respect for the humanity of every individual she met.

Most importantly, she won the newspaper staff's undying affection because of her willingness to defend to district administrators and school board members the well-researched, well-sourced and well-written articles and editorials she taught us to produce. These adults were often unnerved that mere high school students had the audacity to criticize their decisions. As the only former Little Green editor masochistic enough to try to fill her shoes (I served for one year as The Little Green's adviser while teaching at Central), I know the pressures newspaper advisers are under to avoid publishing material that places administrators in a bad light. If the pressure ever bothered her, she never let us know. We used to tell Mrs. L. she was our Ben Bradlee, the Watergate-era Washington Post editor who once famously swatted away White House criticism of Woodward and Bernstein by saying, "We'll stand by the boys."

Recently, the lifelong interest in journalism Mrs. L. inspired in me prompted me to pick up a copy of "Deadline Artists," an anthology of America's greatest newspaper columns. In a tribute George Will wrote to his mother, he quoted Thornton Wilder, who once said, "All that we can know about those we have loved and lost is that they wish us to remember them with a more intensified realization of their reality. What is essential does not die but clarifies. The highest tribute to the dead is not grief but gratitude."

So, as I and hundreds of her former students say farewell to Mrs. L., I am truly sad; but, more importantly, I am eternally grateful.

David Scannell teaches English at Milford High School. As a Central student, he was the editor of The Little Green, the student newspaper. When he taught at Central, he was the paper's adviser.

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