Chances are good that without Charlotte Cadwell’s encouragement, I wouldn't have managed to write and deliver a graduation speech in the spring of 1962.
Mrs. Cadwell taught English at Chamberlain High School during my four years there. In fact, she taught at the school for most of four decades. She was one big reason so many Chamberlain graduates showed up on college campuses ready for the demands of university-level English and literature.
I know she sparked a fire in me for all things related to words, language and clear, respectful expression. I signed up for every literature class I could fit into my schedule during my college years partly because of the joy I experienced in Mrs. Cadwell’s classes back at CHS. During college courses, as a professor worked through prose or poetry readings, I sometimes recalled moments in one of Mrs. Cadwell’s classes and could see how those moments had prepared me for the higher-level study.
Charlotte Cadwell died this past week at 92. Only recently have I been able to call her Charlotte. The first time I did, I can’t tell you how impertinent I felt. She didn’t care. She was happy to see me and to talk a bit. But it felt odd to me to be on a first-name basis with someone I admired so. She was Mrs. Cadwell when I took my first English course from her as a freshman, and she remained Mrs. Cadwell though high school and for years and years after.
I suppose that’s how it is when you have had a teacher or coach who made an especially lasting impression. Think about the favorite teacher or teachers from your own school days. Imagine how they made the coursework come alive in that unique way special teachers have. Then imagine calling them by their first name. It isn’t easy, is it?
It sure wasn’t for me, not even after the time and attention she gave me as I tried to craft seven or eight minutes of valedictory remarks to be delivered to a packed armory on commencement evening. Writing a speech was tough enough, but even if I filled some pages with words, I doubted I could stand in front of the audience and speak. My knees shook and my voice quivered just reciting a short poem in an English class, and that was with just my classmates watching, not a crowd of adults.
Somehow, through the same magic she brought to the classroom, I suppose, Mrs. Cadwell convinced me that not only could I write a speech worth sharing but also that I could stand tall and deliver it. She didn’t guide the actual writing of the speech. She showed me how to research ideas and how to make those ideas connect with precise, carefully chosen words. Looking back, I realized I got through that experience not so much because I believed I could but because Mrs. Cadwell believed it.
Somehow I lost a couple of pages of the prepared remarks that night and fumbled through an inelegant transition. When Mrs. Cadwell congratulated me on the successful speech and I mentioned the omission, she laughed and said only two people in the entire armory noticed.
I was still in high school when I realized how she resembled the elegant, red-haired film star Deborah Kerr. Kerr starred opposite Yul Brynner in “The King and I” and opposite Burt Lancaster in “From Here to Eternity,” among other leading roles. She was what the fan magazines referred to as statuesque, and that word applied perfectly to Charlotte Cadwell. A dictionary definition is “attractively tall and dignified,” and she was that.
I especially liked the “dignified” part of the definition, because Mrs. Cadwell epitomized dignity. She treated her students with respect, and she expected them to treat her — more importantly, themselves and their classmates — the same way. The teen years, especially for boys, are a time of goofing around and testing boundaries. In her classes, we knew the boundaries and generally stayed within them.
We knew the behavior she expected of us, too. Rarely did we disappoint her. That’s the kind of teacher she was.