Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret
among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture Marly Youmans is a novelist and poet out of sync with the times
but in tune with the ages. --First Things

Sunday, January 03, 2016

Requiescat in pace

The book I dedicated to her.
Catherwood (Farrar, Straus and
Giroux, 1996)
I'm not much on mentioning deaths that matter to me in a public way, but I want to pay a last tribute to Nancy Potts Coward, the most important teacher in my life. My English teacher for three classes in high school, and Composition teacher for three, she always encouraged me, had an enormous faith in my abilities as a writer, and even when I was a mere girl of thirteen or fourteen, declared that she would get to say, "I knew you when."

I dedicated my first book to my husband, but I dedicated my second, Catherwood, to Nancy Potts Coward. (My parents had to wait!) She meant so much to me, and to others as a teacher and friend and example of a life fully lived. A stellar teacher, she had a deep love for literature which led her to pursue a PhD after her high school teaching was done.

Mrs. Coward never liked to have her picture made, so I could never have a picture taken with her. But someone caught our heads in the same frame at Malaprop's in Asheville, where I was reading with Nathan Ballingrud in 2014. And while I will not post the image, I am so glad to have it.

I was thinking about her only yesterday, feeling glad that I saw her the last time I was in the Carolina mountains, and little thinking that I would be shedding tears for the loss of her the next day. Mere death--"the undiscover'd country"--cannot stop me from loving and admiring her, nor from being grateful to her for taking a child's passion for playing with words so seriously.

 * * *

Addendum: Schoolmate Marcia Bryson (now Davies) sent me a picture from her yearbook. I suppose, as it has already had a public viewing (and is a little blurry to boot), I may show it. From left to right: me (check out those fashionable collar points!), my dear friend Gail McIntosh, Nancy Coward, dear friend Beth Hamilton (now Gorman), and Dorothy Lachmund, our English and World History teacher. Both women would have been regarded as exceptional teachers anywhere, and we were lucky to have them in Cullowhee. This must have been taken in our senior year of high school, and then used the following year when the yearbook was dedicated to Mrs. Coward. No, that can't be right, as Gail graduated a year early. I only remember my hair being that short in my sophomore year. Maybe then.

18 comments:

  1. Some comments by Nancy Coward's former students are HERE on my Facebook page.

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  2. May God's face shine upon our best teachers--.I lost one of mine this year, too, Louise Healy Patterson.She and her colleague Valery Nash in the English Department at North Cross School gave me a lasting sense of self.

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  3. A beautiful thought, Mary.

    Oh, I remember Valery Nash at Hollins, when she was in the grad program. I don't think I ever met Louise Healy Patterson....

    Yes, they mean a great deal to us, those teachers.

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  4. I am so sorry to hear this news. Nancy Coward was my best teacher. She taught me composition skills that have served me well in all my endeavors. She raised my literary consciousness and gave me confidence in myself. Mrs Coward was kind and supportive in her guidance but expected her students to do their best. I am very glad and grateful that she was my teacher.

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    1. I just got a sweet note from Bath just now--talking about you and me and Barry and Mrs. Coward's classes.

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    2. I think of our composition class escapades more than any other event during my public education. What a fun time and I also, amazingly, learned a lot. A unique group in interesting times. You were a great source of joy and pride for Mrs Coward.

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    3. I love that we can still laugh helplessly over some of those moments. You know, I am really grateful for her long interest and support. But she retained interest in all her students and, I think, especially in that group.

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  6. Ah, what a lovely tribute. You remind me -- as we were both students and teachers -- that teachers often become in both subtle and profound ways the most influential people in people's lives.

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  7. A touching tribute, Marly. I've no doubt she was immensely proud of how you turned out.

    (Here in the boonies, the Lady of the House is a teacher; among the notes from her kids at Christmastime was a card by a student who promises to dedicate her first novel to her. I'm biased, of course, but I marvel every day that she can be authoritative, knowledgeable, and nurturing all at once.)

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    1. I am glad to say that she was. And your Lady sounds like an excellent combination of teacher virtues!

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  8. Oh, that's a sad loss! I'm sorry, Marly, and glad you knew each other at the right time.

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    1. Another Beth!

      Hi Beth Adams, and yes, it was the very rightest time. <3

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  9. Oh, that's a sad loss! I'm sorry, Marly, and glad you knew each other at the right time.

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  10. Since I left school aged fifteen and five of those years were shared with WW2 my formal education was, at best, glancing. The bit that mattered occurred post-school when I worked as a tea-boy in the sub-editors' room of the local newspaper among men (and one woman) who ensured that published prose was factually correct and easy to understand. No poetry, no gem-like apercus, no sentences longer than a dozen words and a campaign against adjectives and adverbs: it sounds austere but in later life when I was finally able to consider myself adult (circa. 55) I began adding just a little gloss to these utilitarian fundamentals. Better that than the other way round.

    Formal education ended after national service (draft) in the RAF where for eight months I was taught electronics and, tangentially, about science in general.

    I am delighted (but not jealous) to read about people who had the good luck to be educated by good teachers as you were, Marly. No longer fettered by scholastic tradition I have sought out good teachers on subjects that interest me, French in particular. Very recently, music.

    Day-dreaming I recall the geography master who dragged me to the front of the class, compared my foot size with his, and then beat me with a cane on the backside because my feet were bigger. At least I didn't resent the (very painful) beating; on this occasion he did it for a reason; most of the time he beat me randomly.

    Years passed and my anger faded. I have dined out on that anecdote which is some compensation. I have also campaigned (very mildly) against those who deal in pain. Education takes different forms - a sentence that would have been immediately struck out by those early educationists in the smoky sub-editors' room in Bradford in the fifties.

    You did say I could run on a bit, didn't you?

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    1. I should say in response to your "good luck to be educated by good teachers" remark that she not only was a good teacher, but also had a great store of loving-kindness and goodness, without being the least bit smarmy about it.

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  11. Interesting. Random caning is so Dickensian! I am glad you have gotten some practical use from it....

    My high school was tiny, a mix of professors' kids, some other locals, and the Scots-Irish children from an isolated mountain community. I wish that I had understood exactly how precious that mix was; I only had one good friend from Little Canada, a place that was another world from mine.

    The newspaper realm used to be a common starting point for many writers. One of my favorite people, the late Louis D. Rubin, Jr. started out as a newspaper man and later founded one of the first writing programs at Hollins and went on to hold a named chair at UNC-Chapel Hill and publish dozens of books, critical and literary. We still get aspiring writers at our local paper, so maybe it's still a route for some.

    I here present you with the (invisible) license to run on.

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Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.