There is something so heartbreaking about a few scattered dog-eared books piled up around a well worn-out chair. Their spines broken from use, pages reread, chapters started afresh, the meaning of the end never found.

She is one of several people I owe a debt that I will never be able to repay. Any award I am given, or honor I receive for anything I have written or will write, her fingerprints will be there. Much of who I am today was due to her ability to see something in me that I did not see in myself. The books that litter my shelves and floor and inhabit my mind can be traced back to the spark she ignited. She was my English teacher. More importantly, I would not be who I am today without her.

I rang her doorbell. I will admit a part of me was hoping they were not home. Just as I was about to leave, the door opened. Her hair was now white. Yet, it was in the same style that was never in fashion, but easy to take care, that she sported when she taught. She still had that easy Missouri smile that greeted each one of her students that walked into her classroom for decades.

I said her name and mentioned that I just wanted to stop by to say hello. Her husband invited me in and beckoned me to the back porch. As we walked through their living room, I could not help but smile at the sight of several books piled around her chair. I figured this was the retirement every English teacher dreamed of, seemingly all the time in the world to spend with books that she had to put off reading when she taught.

She asked me if I wanted a Coke. I said “no thank you, I had just stopped by to see you.” I had known her longer than I can remember. They had lived behind our place when I was little. One of the scars located in my eyebrow is from my trying to mimic a leap her much older son made on his bike. After we moved, my mother once accidentally (at least she claims it was an accident!) left me at her house. The phone on the wall was ringing before my mom walked through the door.

Mainly, she was my English teacher. She was one of the best instructors in the entire school system. While a large number of teachers find their passions starting to flicker and wane as they edge toward retirement, she was always enthusiastic about her classroom. She cared, and, if she had anything to say about it, her students were going to care about what she taught. This little woman was a force of nature that was determined her students were going to leave her class more cultured than they had walked in, even if she needed a whip and a chair to do it.

I admit I spent most of her class, like I did most of my time in high school, trying not to be noticed, trying to get a little smaller in my desk every time she looked around the room. Then our class took a field trip to attend a dress rehearsal of the Shakespearean play “Much Ado About Nothing,” put on by the drama students at Drake University, complete with flowery language that no teenage boy could possibly follow. I am sure she did not get the enjoyment out of it that she would have liked, as most of her energy was focused on keeping all these young skulls full of mush in line.

I don’t know what she saw that afternoon, but she saw something. The next day, as the bell rang, I felt a little pride making it through another class without saying a word. I had almost made it out the door when my back stiffened a little when I heard her say, “Young Mr. Soderstrum, may I see you for a second?”

Turning back toward her, for some unknown reason, she said, “You can fool everyone else in this school. I know you are not as big a dumb…” the next word out of her mouth was a word I truly believed up until that day that English teachers did not know, followed by the words “as you pretend to be. You are going to make me proud some day.”

That next Monday sitting on my desk as I walked in was a worn out copy of “Hell’s Angels” by someone I had never heard of named Hunter S. Thompson. I slyly slid my other books on top of it, as if it was some embarrassing covert transaction. Being seen with a book would not be good for my carefully cultivated reputation. I remember that night in the privacy of my room flipping through the first few pages. It was as if each word, each line and paragraph had been written in lightning. A whole new universe opened up for me!

As we sat on her back porch, I reminded her of each and every book, how I would finish one and another would be waiting on my desk the next day. I still remembered each and every novel, short story, and poem we read in that class; “The Lady and the Tiger,” “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” “The Most Dangerous Game,” “A Catcher in the Rye.” Langston Hughes, the sadness of Ben Johnson’s lament for his first son, and how William Carlos Williams 16 words about a red wheelbarrow still haunt me decades later.

Her eyes sparkled with each and every name of a writer or story. It was as if she was back in the classroom, even though she had been retired for a couple of decades now. She tossed out little literary pearls as we spoke. I asked her if she had ever gotten any of her short stories published, how she had read one about a sweet English teacher that murdered a foul-mouthed basketball coach during a game to show my class how to construct a narrative. She seemed surprised and had no memories of writing it. There were also moments where she grew quiet. Her eyes dulled as if she was somewhere else. Then she would reenter the conversation by asking if I wanted a Coke. Around the fourth or fifth time, I realized it was her way of trying to hide what was happening.

There was a second that she thought we were still in Iowa. Her husband gently reminded her that they had moved long ago. Other memories became jumbled and tripped over themselves. I told her that I wanted to thank her. I would have never been able to attend the Iowa Writers Workshop last summer if it had not been for her. She had no clue what it was, even though when I was a teenager she spoke about how much it would mean for her for one of her students to go there and validate her lifelong Herculean efforts in the classroom.

I was told I was there on a good day. She showed no sign of the paranoia and fear that gripped her and would not let her go. There was no mention of unseen neighbors listening to our conversation or things that never existed or sat elsewhere in the house being stolen. I know as I hugged her goodbye it would be the last time I would see her. I whispered in her ear, “Thank you for everything you did for me.”

As I walked down the driveway and climbed into the car, I realized that if she hadn’t already forgotten everything I said to her, in a little while the memory of my being there would be erased, like it never happened. Getting back to my parents’ house, I excused myself to take the dog outside for a walk. Standing on the patio, leaning against the fence, I stared out at Arizona’s setting sun. I admit a tear or two found the corners of eyes.

My tears were not because she would forget my gratitude. They were because I know in time she was forgetting the beauty of William Shakespeare, the humor of Mark Twain slipping from her thoughts, and the adventures of Ernest Hemingway in her mind vanishing and being swept away. The poetry and stories that bathed her students in such warmth and provided for them worlds to inhabit will not be a part of her at the end. Tolstoy, Toni Morrison, Joyce, Faulkner, Dostoyevsky, the Brontë sisters, Kafka, Vonnegut, George Eliot, Updike, Huxley, Chandler, and Wells, one by one each of these lights will flicker in her mind and eventually go out. It will be like they never were, and what made her “her,” the woman who influenced so many young lives, will disappear with them. A woman filled with worlds so full of color and warmth, that those sparks found their way into her students, ends so cold and dark.

There is something so heartbreaking about a few scattered dog-eared books piled up around a well worn-out chair. Their spines broken from use, pages reread, chapters started afresh, the meaning of the end never found.

Thank you, Ms. Virginia Meeks, for your light.

Trevor Soderstrum was born and raised in Story City. He’s been writing columns for about a decade and attended the summer session of The Iowa Writer’s Workshop. He can be reached at