In hands of teacher, literature has powerBecause my little brother was asking a question about Miss Arp, director of the public library in Chamberlain when we were kids, I thought of Philip Nolan. The transition isn’t as odd as it may seem. Miss Arp — Katie, we called her behind her back but never to her face — ran the public library on the top floor of City Hall when two or three generations of Chamberlain people were kids. My brother, Kevin, wanted to know something more about her for a talk he was giving about reading.
By: Terry Woster, The Daily Republic
Because my little brother was asking a question about Miss Arp, director of the public library in Chamberlain when we were kids, I thought of Philip Nolan.
The transition isn’t as odd as it may seem. Miss Arp — Katie, we called her behind her back but never to her face — ran the public library on the top floor of City Hall when two or three generations of Chamberlain people were kids. My brother, Kevin, wanted to know something more about her for a talk he was giving about reading.
I did a lot of reading in the Chamberlain city library. I think everyone in our family did. I also did a ton of reading at the Chamberlain School library, too, where I was encouraged mightily by a number of teachers. My little sister, who spent her professional career as a literature teacher at South Dakota State, says she was fortunate to have had so many teachers who instilled in her a love of reading.
The list started with our parents, I say. Our dad was on the Chamberlain library board for some years, and he was an avid reader in the evenings after the farm work was finished for another day. I remember less about our mother as a reader, but she was a marvelous storyteller, and her attention to small detail was uncanny. When you grow up in a household where reading and storytelling are prized, you naturally turn to language, spoken and written, and to stories, whether novels or non-fiction.
Ah, but I’ve left Miss Arp and not reached the unfortunate Mr. Nolan. Well, then, back to the task.
I mentioned in passing to my siblings that one of the teachers I remembered for opening books to me was Nell Labidee, a junior-high instructor at Chamberlain. She taught some of the basic sciences, but she also taught English at some level.
My little sister remembers Mrs. Labidee reading “The Raven” by Edgar Allen Poe when she was in school. I remember reading all sorts of stories and poems in Mrs. Labidee’s classes. Aware that junior-high boys can be a bit difficult to turn on to poetry, she offered us Poe, as well as such pieces as “Old Ironsides,” which I can recite to this day.
She also introduced us to Philip Nolan, the character in a story by Edward Everett Hale. The story was written perhaps a century before we read it in Mrs. Labidee’s classroom in 1957 or 1958, but I still remember how it came alive, as “ripped from today’s headlines” as the latest dispatches from the Eisenhower White House or from the Cold War raging in Berlin and across Europe.
Nolan was a military officer tried and found guilty as an accomplice to Aaron Burr. After the verdict, he cursed his own country and shouted, “I wish I may never hear of the United States again.”
In itself, that passage was enough to send shivers down the spine of the average junior-high boy in the 1950s. It may seem old-fashioned these days, but that was some heavy stuff when I was coming of age.
What came next stunned me. The judge in the case ordered Nolan taken to New Orleans, I believe. There he was placed on an American sailing ship, and the captain was given orders that no one in the crew was to mention the United States for as long as the prisoner sailed with them. Nolan lived out his life on the ship, never setting food on United States soil again, never hearing his own country’s name spoken. At the very end, a sailor tells him what has happened in America.
The more I thought about a life without a country, the more stunning it became. It was like pondering the meaning of eternity.
I learned from other guys in the class that they felt the same way. That’s pretty remarkable in itself. We were an immature bunch, and it took quite a lot for any of us to admit that a story — a piece of literature, at that — moved us.
The written word did that, with assists from Nell Labidee and Katie Arp.