Next Monday marks the beginning of National Teacher Appreciation Week. During this annual celebration, we pay tribute to teachers who make a difference in our lives. And we remind those in power how important teachers are to the future of our nation. In this week’s commentary, Salvation South Editor Chuck Reece is here with a memory of a teacher who helped him find magic in the written word.

A teacher in front of a group of students
Credit: File


Every April, a certain bit of writing comes into my head:

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

Those are the first lines of T.S. Eliot’s epic poem, “The Waste Land.” I first learned them over forty years ago. I was in high school.

These lines have nothing at all to do with my usual subject. Thomas Stearns Eliot and the American South never mixed. He was born in Missouri, moved to England at age twenty-five and stayed there.

No, I share those lines with you because of why I learned them, how long they stayed with me, and the person who put them there.

That person’s name is Linda Whitaker Wright, and she was my English teacher during my senior year of high school.

She was teaching us poetry that year. I remember an assignment to stand before the class and analyze a short poem. Many of my classmates were lazy and brought in the lyrics of a favorite song. I was lazy, too. “Eleanor Rigby” by the Beatles was my choice, and I explained to the class why poor Eleanor was the very epitome of loneliness.

But when it came time for the final assignment of the class, Ms. Wright told us to write a paper about a long poem. So I picked Eliot’s most famous epic. All four-hundred-and-ninety lines of it.

I remember a couple weeks of long hours in the library, poring over those lines, searching books to help me decipher Eliot’s references to Greek mythology and literary works I knew nothing about. Aldous Huxley. Charles Baudelaire. Along the way, I would visit Ms. Wright between classes, checking in to see if my budding understanding was on target. I even learned one word of Sanskrit. The poem’s last line is a chant—a prayer, really—of the Sanskrit word “shantih.”

Shantih shantih shantih. It means peace. The deepest, truest peace.        

I think Ms. Wright gave me an A on the paper. But what she really gave me was encouragement. She never told me I’d bitten off more than I could chew. She knew, I think, that inside those thousands of words were hundreds of chances for me to learn things that were absolutely new to me.

That’s what the best teachers do. Linda Wright taught me I could find magic in words. And ever since, chasing that magic has put food on my table, clothes on my back, and a roof over my head.

In the last section of “The Waste Land,” there is a question:

Who is the third who walks always beside you?

Today, I know this is an oblique reference to the Book of Luke, where Jesus, freshly resurrected, appears to two of his disciples as they walk the road to Emmaus. But the third who walks beside you might also be a teacher, because the ones who let you chase your own magic, they stay with you. Ms. Wright is still with us. I hope she is listening. If you have a teacher like her, it might be good for you to say so.

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Salvation South editor Chuck Reece comments on Southern culture and values in a weekly segment that airs Fridays at 7:45 a.m. during Morning Edition and 4:44 p.m. during All Things Considered on GPB Radio. You can also find them here at and please download and subscribe on your favorite podcast platform as well.