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Sunday, January 23, 2022

Saying goodbye to Helen Eisaman

Helen Loree Dew Eisaman, 1940-2022

Helen Eisaman, who taught English at Tivy High School for over 30 years, passed away this week. 
I was a student in her class during the 1976-77 school year, when she was new to the campus. Both of my children also had her as an English teacher, some twenty-five years later. They both agreed: as a teacher, Eisaman was tough, but good.
Attending her funeral service Thursday, I observed the people gathered at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church. There were former teaching colleagues, current teachers, folks from her church family, and friends. There was another group there, too: many of her former students. The groups were not mutually exclusive, since many of her former students were also her friends.
I was in her English class my sophomore year. My freshman year at Tivy had not been spectacular; during my first six weeks there, my parents were informed I was failing two classes, English (Mrs. Syers) and Math (Mrs. Guess). My parents were not amused. While I brought those grades up, it was not a great start to my high school career.
My sophomore year was just as wobbly. I was awkward, immature, and had the attention span of a distracted gnat. I doodled on paper when I should have been listening. I was sloppy and unorganized. In short, I was a teenager.
A notebook of my
Regardless of my many shortcomings, Mrs. Eisaman believed in me when few outside of my family did. And she expressed her belief in me frequently, often when I missed the mark; she expected better work from me.
Mrs. Eisaman focused on three things when I was in her class: reading, writing, and grammar. When she started diagramming sentences on the blackboard those first weeks, well, the gears in my brain locked up. I don’t think I could diagram a sentence today, even if you offered me a huge cash prize. (Gentle Reader, you already know grammar remains a problem for me.)
The reading portion and the writing portion of her class, however, I loved. She introduced us to an English playwright that year, a fellow named Shakespeare. Once we got past his antique phrases, and his use of obscure words, most of us thought the plays were amazingly good, with concurrent stories all bundled up together, presented as entertainment. Somehow, Mrs. Eisaman got a class of teenagers to enjoy Shakespeare.
A note from Mrs. Eisaman
Even after I’d graduated from Tivy, Mrs. Eisaman continued to take an interest in my progress. She’d stop by the print shop to visit, and one time she brought me the folder of my schoolwork from her class.
I read some of my old papers. They are so awful, it’s embarrassing.
When I started writing this column, back in 1994, she visited more frequently, at least for the first few years. Often, she brought a copy of my column with her. My mistakes, mostly grammar mistakes, were marked in red pencil. 
Once, when she was especially exasperated by something I’d written, she told me “I taught you better than this.” We both laughed, because it was both funny and true.
The last time I saw Helen Eisaman was in the waiting room of a local doctor. She was there for something serious; I was there for something minor. She showed such concern for me – and none for herself. I’m not sure I ever convinced her I was on the mend.
I am grateful for the many teachers who guided me through my years as a student in Kerrville’s public schools. A few, like Helen Eisaman, changed my life for the better, not for the subjects they taught, but for the way they encouraged me, seeing ability where others, including myself, saw none.
Judging from the many former students gathered at Mrs. Eisaman’s funeral service Thursday, I was not the only one she helped.
Until next week, all the best.

Joe Herring Jr. is a Kerrville native who still loves to read, though it’s been a few years since he tackled Shakespeare. This column originally appeared in the Kerrville Daily Times January 22, 2022.

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