Miss Helen Stoddart
- by Alan Stafford

Most of us have that one teacher who left his/her mark on us. For some of us, it was not our favorite teacher, but instead a cranky taskmaster who nevertheless left us with a principle, a philosophy, or a virtue that has endured.

For me, that teacher was Helen Stoddart. Yes, that crank in Room 101 who preyed on juniors, and who became Chair of the English Department when "Thel" retired. Make no mistake: I dreaded her class, and I dreaded her. Never mind that I was often unprepared having not read the assignments, Miss Stoddart was at the bottom of my list at MHS.

You would have thought I would be at the bottom of HER list as well. I was a kid from the wrong side of town. I was the kid with the miserable homelife, and I was the kid who missed so much school in the 10th and 11th grades, but Miss Stoddart was relentless. We were going to get this English stuff. We were going to graduate, and we WERE going to succeed! And that included me.

I didn't really get it at the time. I thought it was about reading Hamlet, writing essays, and passing English. I was wrong. Miss Stoddart left her mark on me more as a person than as a teacher. Two examples come to mind:

Late in our junior year I was sitting in her class. It was just another warm Mishawaka day in one of the drab and dreary classrooms in the "old" end of the school. Our boredom was interrupted by a note from the main office. Miss Stoddart read it silently, then put her hands over her eyes. (I later heard that it was news that a close relative has died). There was a muffled sort of mini-explosion inside her, like a deep cough you don't want to let out. Her eyes filled with tears, and she sat there for just a few seconds -- no more than ten or fifteen. Then she wiped her eyes and straightened herself. The class continued as before.

Now some of you may think that this was stoicism taken too far. After all, today we are supposed to be in touch with our feelings. I believe Miss Stoddart was in touch with hers. However, she had a job to do. She didn't consult a bevy of grief counselors or call Geraldo. Her grace and poise in adversity was a better lesson for me than diagramming any sentences. This glimpse into her private life resulted in the realization that she (and, by extension, all teachers at MHS) was more than faculty: She was human.

The second example came after classes were over our senior year. Miss Stoddart called me to her classroom to offer her congratulations on graduating. She wanted to take a graduation photo of me, and she asked me to give her my college address so that she could write me. No one had ever done such a thing for me. Miss Stoddart was all animated and talkative; I think she was more excited by my graduating than I was.

It took a while, but as the years went by I began to understand: Crabby old Miss Stoddart -- and others like her -- were doing their jobs. Their jobs were to prepare us for the adult world; their mission was our success. Miss Stoddart was so excited that June day in 1968 because I had succeeded. I had graduated and was going on to college, and, because of this, she had succeeded.

One of the main disadvantages of moving to another state as I did was that I lost contact with classmates and teachers. During our reunions I would stop by Miss Stoddart's house in South Bend, but she was always staying with family in Canada during the summer. During one such trip, I wrote her a letter. I don't know whether she ever received it. I wanted her to know how her determination, her dignity, and, finally, her kindness had stayed with this former student.

You might criticize her (and their) methods at MHS during those years, but you cannot dispute the results. To paraphrase what someone else recently wrote: It IS amazing that so many of us from a smallish, working-class town succeeded both personally and professionally. As someone once wrote, "Friends I can get anywhere. Having a teacher who can lead and inspire is a rare gift, indeed."

Alan Stafford, BA, DDS, MBA, MHA,
MHS 1968

Miss Helen Grace Stoddart:
born December 14, 1910;
died July 19, 2003.
Miss Stoddart was the daughter of
William Wright Stoddart
and his wife,
Mary Grace Walters.
Miss Stoddart's father was a Presbyterian minister.

Mishawaka teacher tributes:
|Auggie Baetsle| |Emily Davidson|
Mary Hess| |Charles Karst|
Thelma Martin, 1| |Thelma Martin, 2|
Don Portolese| |Margaret Powell|
Earl Stine| |Helen Stoddart|
Rosa Weikel| |Marvin Wood|
A Collection of Thanks|