Words On Teaching

By Joe Eberlin

I once sat with Mr. Dickey. It was the only time I ever met him and it was shortly before his death. Kathey O'Connor took me by his house around the 15th of December, 1996. She knew I admired his work, and since she had been a student of his, Kathey used the excuse of taking him Christmas cookies to introduce him to me.

The sky was overcast and it had rained for most of the day. Around one or two in the afternoon, we went to his home on Lake Katherine (the house in the water I think he called it). He was home, but we were greeted at the door by his housekeeper. He was very frail and was using oxygen, so he stayed in his chair. Kathey spoke to him about his class and his new novel, To the White Sea. He asked her what she was doing with herself. She told him that she had just finished student teaching and was moving home to Charleston to find a teaching position. She also told him that I was a teacher. He looked at her and then to me and said that teaching was the most powerful job in the world and for us to hold our students to the rules of grammar and spelling. He said that too many of his students did not know basic grammar, parts of speech, and such.

I was in awe and said, "Yes,sir." He looked at me directly and asked, "Where are you from? You don't have a southern 'e'." When I explained my Army Brat background, he grinned and looked to Kathey. He also, in the course of the conversation, corrected us from saying, "I hopefully..." and told us to say, "I hope that..." because it was correct. He had spoken about a play of his that was doing well in California and that Brad Pitt might play the lead for the movie of To the White Sea. He mentioned that the Cohen brothers might direct it. We left shortly after we arrived, making our way through the waist-high stacks of books and glancing quickly to his multiple oxgen tanks. Mr. Dickey invited us back anytime. We wished him a merry Christmas and left.

In the car, I hardly said a word. About a month later, Kathey called me around seven a.m. to tell me that James Dickey had passed away. In class that day, I told my students about having met him and what that meeting had meant to me. They said they were sorry and the day went on.