I remember when I first met Barbara Hux. We had just moved to rural Lincoln county, and my Mom had taken a job as a first-grade schoolteacher at BogueChitto Consolidated School. Having just moved from Jackson, we were all newcomers despite our deep roots in the community. At first sight, Mrs. Hux was to me a little intimidating. Although slight of stature, she appeared stern and proper — and she was. Her countenance was mysterious, with deep, dark, intelligent eyes. She chose her words carefully and thoughtfully, and spoke in a quiet voice, seldom hurrying. But when I first heard her speak, her gentle voice belied the sternness. There was a calmness about her, which spoke of an inner peace. I liked her immediately.
I learned that some of the other kids feared Mrs. Hux and taking her English classes. There were stories told in hushed tones, about kids who had misbehaved in class. Given that I had come to know her and the way she had supported my family after the tragic loss of my brother — and her student — Monty, I didn’t understand their concerns. I plunged into 9th grade English with both feet. One thing that struck me immediately was the way she seldom raised her voice; she didn’t have to. Troublemakers who dared disrupt Mrs. Hux’s class were dispatched efficiently to the principal’s office; the same quiet voice and thoughtful gaze I had come to associate with kindness could also be used to summon instant respect.
Mrs. Hux, I learned, was a true educator. She had little patience for those who didn’t take seriously their studies, but could quickly identify those who wanted to learn, and would go to the ends of the earth to help them develop their potential. It was here that I first channeled my gift and love of writing. Although such a gift comes only from God, it takes a teacher to mold and discipline a young mind.
I had been writing for as long as I can remember. As a child, l would write simple, silly poems about my cat or the fall leaves. My Mom, an English major and herself the child of teachers, made sure there were books everywhere. My Dad, the first in his family to attend college, inspired me to go further and push toward my potential. The family’s set of 1966 World Book encyclopedias became my Internet, and I learned to love learning. When I tired of playing with my GI Joes and trucks in the backyard, my brothers off on some adventure, I would spend hours reading about Henry VIII, or learning about rocketry, or studying ancient Egypt.
Information became food for my imagination, and language to me was a delightful playground. Where others saw beauty in the logic of math, the unlikely marriage of logic and creativity that is music, or the steady march of history, I found endless wonder in the interplay of subjects and verbs. I delighted in making constructions from the building blocks of meter and rhyme. I was perfectly at peace in the blissful world of my imagination, and writing was how I could communicate between both of my worlds. There was a writer inside me, new and unrefined, like the fluffy cotton about to burst from its boll under the merciless Delta sun.
Mrs. Hux somehow understood this about me. She pushed me, chiding me when she knew I could do better. Once, she challenged me to enter an essay contest for a local bank. I won, along with a tidy sum for my efforts. From then on, I learned that writing could be not only a pathway to self-expression, but also a means to earn a living.
Jump ahead five years, and I’m in a Junior College Journalism class. There, Mrs. Mildred Craig recognized the writer Mrs. Hux had nurtured, challenging me to be fearless and question everything. It was here I wrote my first clumsy newspaper stories for the Pine Burr, the Junior College newspaper. Jump ahead two more years, and I am writing for the Ole Miss newspaper, The Daily Mississippian. There, Tommy Miller and a host of others built on the foundation, pushing me — sometimes mercilessly — to take control of my writing (and to never, ever put a period after the Dr in Dr Pepper!)
Smoothing out the imperfections were legends like Gale Denley– the gruff-yet-grandfatherly old newsman — and Jere Hoar, the stern-but-caring professor who taught me to never fear a challenge. They handed the mantle to people like Charlie Dunagin, who gave my first job after college writing for the local newspaper, and Betty Brumfield, the wise and rarely-subtle newspaper librarian who gave me sage advice on being a reporter. Each passed on something intangible, yet infinitely valuable.
There are many, many more teachers I could name, from my infancy on to today. There are people like Mrs. Everett, my first-grade teacher who seemed imposing to my 6-year-old self, but was actually just a scared kid herself, in her first job out of college. There’s Mrs. Eason in 6th grade and Mrs. Denman, my high school science teacher who nurtured in me an enduring love of science.
Many people hold the title of teacher or professor; many more don’t. But every one of them did something, said something, or recognized something that helped make me who I am. And I am eternally grateful. Now, with the perspective of middle-age, I look back on my life so far, and their marks are unique and recognizable.
A couple of years ago, I ran into Mrs. Hux in the garden department at Lowe’s. She’s retired now, having handed the baton to another generation. But I tried to tell her just how much I appreciate what she did for me. She told me she’d kept up with my career, and it made me happy to know she takes a lot of pride in seeing the results of her work.
So thank you, Mrs. Hux, and thank you, all of those who have given their lives to the noblest of professions — the artistry of taking the crude and unrefined fibers of creativity and using their unique style to weave those threads into the tapestry of a life.