by Charles East
As our class of sophomores at Cleveland High School moved up to juniors in the fall of 1940 we moved into the domain of a teacher named Effie Glassco. We had never had Mrs. Glassco for a teacher, but we had heard stories about her--the thrust of them being that she was something of an ogre.
As a matter of fact she looked tough as she passed us in the hall on her way to the superintendent's office. In the hall at least she had a serious face and a fast walk, with her shoulders thrown back and her arms in motion. She gave the impression that she was on her way to storm the office.
In her domain--her home room--she was serious, but as the year wore on showed another side to herself. She had a sense of humor! True, it frequently took the form of sarcasm. From time to time she would address us collectively as "children": "Children, don't forget you have a test tomorrow . . ." We understood how it was intended. But she was dead serious about why she was there--to teach--and there were not many who doubted it.
Mrs. Glassco would have been in her early forties then, an age that gave her more authority than the younger teachers. But in fact her authority came from within her. One look into those eyes--they were brown, but I remember them as almost black--spoke volumes. Those eyes challenged you, measured you, gave you a glimpse of the intelligence behind them.
And that voice! It was a voice that I can still hear but am unable to describe, except to say that it seemed to come from deep in her throat and was at moments husky, sharp, emphatic. It commanded attention.
Mrs. Glassco taught us English both our junior and senior years--American literature one year and English literature the next, with a good deal of time spent on grammar along the way. She also taught us how to write stories for the Cleveland Hi-Light, the school paper, and in her time away from school wrote a weekly column for her husband's newspaper, The Enterprise, and later for the Bolivar Commercial.
One year she had us keep "journals" that we wrote in every morning in class--something I now see as far in advance of the times. It gave us the habit of putting pen to paper. Subject was not important, and neither was length. We could write a sentence or a paragraph, or more if we were long-winded. A few weeks at that and the pen wrote easier.
Mrs. Glassco allowed a good deal of latitude in what we read outside the textbooks, and she brought her own reading into the classroom. For instance, she introduced us to the Greenville writer William Alexander Percy by reading passages from his Lanterns on the Levee when the book was published in 1941.
She liked surprises. With our final exam in English IV coming up our senior year, the lights burned late as we crammed for it. In class the next day Mrs. Glassco got up from her desk with a very faint smile on her face, went to the blackboard, and wrote: Final exam: Write a poem.
I don't recall what I wrote. Rut Berger wrote: "A sigh of relief is what you hear / From every student far and near."
No wonder fifty years later we remembered her.
In the years after I left for college, and later, I usually stopped by Mrs. Glassco's home for a visit when I was in Cleveland. If it was summer we would often sit on her porch while the traffic passed on Court Street. By then I was calling her "Effie." I don't believe I asked her if I might call her that--one day, in the middle of one of our conversations, it just happened.
I always had stories for her--she had a great curiosity about the world and about people--and she had stories for me. Or there was a book she had read and wanted to recommend that I read, or a play she had seen in New York or Memphis.
She was always full of questions about my writing--what I was working on and--her first question--when I was going to finish it! She would often give me word of Wirt Williams, another of her students who had become a writer and who stayed in touch with her. Wirt was the author of six novels. And there were others.
Once, I remember, she talked about one of her former students named Thomas Harris who had written a novel called Black Sunday. This, years before The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal Lecter.
Effie died in 1979. What an extraordinary person she was and how fortunate we were, all of us who sat in her classes.
Charles East, a former editor with Collier’s and with Louisiana State University Press, is the author of several books, including two collections of short stories, Where The Music Was and Distant Friends and Intimate Strangers. Of East’s writing, George Core, editor of The Sewanee Review, says: “The situations and characters . . . are sharply individuated and wholly believable . . . . Charles East has few equals and fewer superiors among the makers of the contemporary story.”
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COMMENT from Don Drane:
As I recall, Mrs. Glassco (whom I would never have called Effie) retired from teaching while I was in about the 10th grade. I did, however, see her many times in the hallways and knew she was the grandmother of my classmate, Melinda Glassco, and mother of Kimble Glassco, Melinda's dad. Because he had more meaningful memories, Charles East had no reason to mention the one thing I recall most about Mrs. Glassco, and that is that she was every bit as tall as four feet eleven inches. Even at that diminutive size, she was able to take command of the hallway with that brisk swagger toward the office. I always assumed she was on her way there to either whip the principal or turn in the name and deed of some rapscallion . . .