Mrs Roberts succeeded in getting under my skull

A red hot panegyric for National Teacher Day

Forget the fact that it’s Star Wars Day1; more importantly, it’s National Teacher Day. I’ve already sent you the moving exchange between Albert Camus and his former teacher, so today I’m sending something else. It was written by American novelist Thomas Wolfe whilst studying playwriting at Harvard, aged 20, and concerns Margaret Roberts, the beloved schoolteacher who had spotted and nurtured Wolfe’s prodigious talents when he was a child, and with whom he kept in touch for many years beyond formal education. This particular letter was first published in 1946 in The Atlantic Monthly, and then, years later, in the book, Windows of the Heart.


Sept 5 1921

Cambridge Mass.

Dear Mr Wells:

My friend and former teacher, Mrs J. M. Roberts, has lately written me, explaining that some testimonial is desired as to her quality as a teacher, and asking me if I would care to record any opinion I have on that subject. I esteem it an honor and a privilege to do this altho I find myself in constant difficulties when I try to keep my pen from leaping away with a red hot panegyric2.

But—with all the moderation and temperance and earnestness at my command I can no do less than consider Mrs Roberts as one of the three great teachers who have ever taught me,—this with all honor to Harvard who has not yet succeeded in adding a fourth name to my own Hall of Fame.

More than any one I have ever known Mrs Roberts succeeded in getting under my skull with an appreciation of what is fine and altogether worthwhile in literature. That, in my opinion, is the vital quality. That is the essential thing,—the mark of a real teacher.

I didn’t know until Mrs Roberts wrote me that she had no university degree but that is a matter of not the slightest consequence to me. So far does she surpass certain college graduates I know, who are teaching, in respect to actual knowledge, appreciation, and the ability to stimulate and inspire that any difficulty as to a degree would be negligible, I think.

I have spoken of Mrs Roberts merely as a teacher. This is perhaps the only testimonial you want. But I cannot stop before I speak of another matter that has been of the highest importance to me. During the years Mrs Roberts taught me she exercised an influence that is inestimable on almost every particular of my life and thought.

With the other boys of my age I know she did the same. We turned instinctively to this lady for her advice and direction and we trusted to it unfalteringly.

I think that kind of an elation is one of the profoundest experiences of anyone’s life,—I put the relation of a fine teacher to a student just below the relation of a mother to her son and I don’t think I could say more than this.

You can readily understand that the intimacy of such a relation is much more important in those formative years at grammar school or high school than afterwards at college.

At college you don’t get it but you don’t need it so much. The point is that I did get it at a time when it was supremely important that I get it. It is, therefore, impossible that I ever forget the influence of Mrs Roberts, she is one of my great people and happy are those who can claim her as their teacher!

I am

Very Truly Yours

Thomas Wolfe


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1

Having said that, this Alec Guinness letter never grows old.

2

‘A lofty oration or writing in praise of a person or thing.’—Dictionary.com