An appreciation of Holly Hickler, master teacher, poet, her love affair with words, dead at 88.

By Dr. Jeffrey Lant

Author’s program note. This is a story about words and a woman who understood the power of words properly used to motivate adolescents, some of the toughest customers on earth. It is the story of Holly Hickler, proud to be a teacher, exhilarated by the challenges of her profession, a model to the less committed, who are legion.

Words, words, and ocean of words.

If you are a word person (as I confess I am) you will be sad upon reading this article that you never knew Holly Hickler. The minute I read her obituary in The Boston Globe (July 31, 2011), I was so saddened… I wanted to know her… and  I wanted the world to know her, too. Words, you see, even words in an obituary, can make you feel so; words can do anything, convey anything, rouse anything, exult anything, change anything, remove anything, love anything, revolt anything…

… but you must know the words, have them not just in your head, but in your fingertips; words must be your constant companions. They must intrigue you, mystify you, bring you to your knees with grief, carry your prayers to God, and then, doubling back, conjure love from indifference… then ask your too late mate when she will be home for dinner.

Holly Hickler loved words, every word; she loved the sound of them, the textures, the complicated words and the simple words which proved upon reflection to be the most complicated of all: heaven, love, death, God, forever.

Mischievous, this mother could with laughter and purpose confound her children by reciting at any time or place a sprig of Frost on an autumn day:

“Summer was past and the day was past. Sombre clouds in the west were massed. Out on the porch’s sagging floor Leaves got up in a coil and hissed….”

( from “Bereft” by Robert Frost, 1874-1963)

Or this written by Gerard Manly Hopkins (1844-1889) in 1877, but not published until 1918.

“GLORY be to God for dappled things —   For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow:    For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim; Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings:…”

( from the poem “Pied Beauty”).

Poems like these, even simple seeming Frost, are hard to read… harder to  understand… and that would have suited Mrs. Hickler just fine. Such words, in such order, forced the surly, withdrawn, moody, often aggravating adolescents (either school delivered or borne by her) to stop, read the words clearly, sharply, for words must be heard; then look up the definitions… recite them again with greater clarity both of recitation and of meaning… then again and again, transforming brain cells into repositories of words, to be yours forever, shared only when you wish to touch a human heart or uplift, if only for a minute, some weary passerby in need of the comfort of the right word right delivered.

Her life.

Born Helen, in Philadelphia, her mother, Jean Miller Schloss, was fashion coordinator for Gimbels Department Store, and her father Edwin Schloss, a cellist who played chamber music with members of the Philadelphia Orchestra. It was a home of culture, the arts, and of sensitivities to music… literature… and, always, to words.

After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in 1945 with a major in English, she worked on women’s magazines and publishing for a time and interviewed authors on television in New York City.  Unfortunately (and tellingly) her greatest achievement in these years was not the stunning prose she wrote and published (for she did neither), but rather the fact she survived the crash of a B-25 aircraft which plunged into the Empire State Building in July, 1945 while she was working. But she survived…

In 1946, she married Courtland Yardley White III, her former writing professor. They had twins, Peter and Kate. Mr. White died of tuberculosis in January, 1950. That September she married Frederick Dunlap Hickler, an architect. They had three children. When their oldest child left for college, Mrs. Hickler started teaching at the progressive Cambridge School of Weston, Massachusetts. Here her vocation for teaching became evident to all.

Sympathetic, loving, strict standards.

Unwary students often misread Mrs. Hickler’s educational approach, to their peril. She was kind, empathetic, even loving towards her students, but this did not mean any diminution of the high standards she expected students to meet. As Bonny Musinsky, a fellow teacher at the school for 17 years, said, “when it comes to grading, she was no push-over. If they didn’t measure up — with all her love and caring — she would give them a C.”

The writer’s eye.

Writers are a probing, observant, perceptive, invasive kind of people. They never merely glance and are the masters of minute detail and of actually seeing a thing. No one can write effective prose without these skills. Mrs. Hickler made it a point to foster this ability which she used to good effect in her 1981 book co-authored with Cambridge psychiatrist John Mack. It was titled “Vivienne: The Life and Suicide of an Adolescent Girl”, and focused on the impersonal attitude of teachers in meeting the needs of teen-agers. No one ever accused Mrs. Hickler of such misunderstanding and dereliction and that is why she was such an effective, impacting, and always memorable instructor.

Writer’s block.

I can guess, but cannot confirm, that one of the great sadnesses of this productive life was her own difficulties with writing words and slender published oeuvre. It must have been maddening, discouraging, irritating at the very least. So much so, that at age 75 she took a class to overcome writer’s block. In due course, she wrote again. It was prose remembers Deborah Carr of Wellesley, a member of the group, about her “youth in an artsy, intellectual family in Philadelphia which she told in a voice that sounded as young as Holly was at heart.” Unfortunately, it was not published… but this article, which will be read by thousands, will help keep green the memory of Holly Hickler, and her message that words matter, good writing matters, and that both are essential in the complicated business of human communication.

Infuriatingly, this is something far too many school districts have not grasped, which is one reason SAT reading scores have sunk to a record low with the class of 2011. In this connection, Wayne Camara, College Board vice president of research, mused, “We’re looking and wondering if more efforts in English and reading and writing would benefit students.”

Having read  this article, just what do you think Holly Hickler’s resounding response would have been? Or what yours should be, now that she has gone?

Then go to any search engine to find the recording by the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia of Tshaikovsky’s Variations on a Roccoco Theme. Holly would have loved it…. and so will you.


About the Author

Harvard-educated Dr. Jeffrey Lant is CEO of Worldprofit, Inc.,  providing a wide range of online services for small and-home based businesses. Dr. Jeffrey Lant is also the author of 18 best-selling business books.

Republished with author’s permission by Graham Lee – The Income Zone

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