Richard Hyatt: Someone who made a difference

May 13, 2014 

When we were young we were her students. We're older now and we are her pallbearers.

Each of us graduated from the same high school, but we met for the first time outside the door of a funeral home chapel and the conversation turned to Norma McLendon, the English teacher we had in common.

One fellow talked about the morning his father woke him up for class wearing a suit reserved for church and funerals. Mrs. McLendon had asked him to come to the schoolhouse to talk about his son being more interested in his rock band than he was learning.

"She changed my life that day," my fellow pallbearer said, "and I've never forgotten her."

I also remembered her. She sponsored the school newspaper and she asked me to write a piece about the meaning of Christmas. With her unexpected encouragement, I became the feature editor and I have never stopped writing.

During the service, the minister talked about former students rallying around her during years of declining health. The flow of mail was constant and he read a number of messages that described the role she had played in the lives of the young people she taught.

That was the way it was with the pallbearers. We talked about how she had rerouted our paths at a moment when our lives were on a rocky road. The stories were different but the endings were the same. She had made a difference.

Nobody said she was easy. Fact is, she was just plain hard.

As a teacher, she had expectations and she enforced them. But as we prepared to lift her remains we didn't talk about reading Beowulf or making our verbs agree with our nouns. We talked about how she cared.

To us, teachers were ageless and they didn't have a life outside of class.

At her funeral I learned she had been a high stepping majorette, a gifted pianist and a talented floral arranger.

She edited the same college newspaper that I worked on.

More interesting was that she was only 11 years older than I was when she stepped into my life.

Teacher Appreciation Week was last week and students all over town celebrated the men and women that teach them. They often take teachers for granted not realizing the impact these people will have on their futures.

Breakfast was served and banners honored their devotion, but hard-working educators deserve more than an annual ceremony. Remembering the ones who gave us a boost, we need to say thank you every day.

And carrying Norma McLendon's body up a hill at a cemetery near the Atlanta airport was my way of showing gratitude to a teacher that intervened when I needed her most.

Richard Hyatt is an independent correspondent. Reach him at

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