Mrs. Woerner

For our 55th high school reunion, my class made a gift in honor of a former English teacher, Berenice Woerner. We were also asked to write a reminiscence about her. Here is mine. But first some background for those of you her weren’t at Friends Central with me.

I entered FCS in 4th grade in 1951 and graduated in 1960. It had a Lower School (K – 6th) and an Upper School (7th – 12th). Mrs. Woerner headed the Upper School’s English Department. She also supervised the school paper, whose editors, as I recall, she appointed, and the yearbook, whose editors were elected. Mr. Farraday, whom I mention, was the Dean of Boys and taught biology and, I think, religion. The grading system ran O (Outstanding), A (Above Usual), U (Usual), BU (Below Usual) and SBU (Seriously Below Usual). Now that that’s clear…

After I was elected co-editor of my class yearbook, a position I hadn’t contemplated seeking, a pal in the English section that Mrs Woerner taught, besides the one in which I sat, explained that she had touted my qualifications to it. Those votes that endorsement swayed had swept to victory a candidacy I hadn’t known existed.
But I owe Mrs. Woerner for more than that.

For one thing, by selecting my 6th grade, Mad-comic-influenced story, “Dog Net,” for inclusion in The Literary Supplement, she gave me my first publication credit, a fact omitted from my official CV. Then when I reached the Upper School, she became, with Mr. Farraday, one of my two champions. And, boy, in adolescence, did I need champions.
Mrs. Woerner always liked my writing, but she set tough standards for me. Never gave me a final grade of “A”… I mean, “O.” Told me to read Hemingway and Kerouac, when my idea of a café was the Hot Shoppe, and “The Road,” for me, ran no further than the Schuylkill Expressway.
But when my college Hum. II instructor suggested I take a Creative Writing class, and between me and it loomed this praetorian guard of aspiring Creative Writers, uniformed in black turtlenecks and wielding green bookbags, past whom I could see no way to slip, I thought, Well Mrs. Woerner liked my writing too… And in that class, I found, not only this calling, but more importantly, I met my wife. Sure, it took a couple years to bring all that together, but nevertheless…
Life turns on luck and effort and corners turned, left or right. Remove one straw and the entire structure changes.

I understand that, since she had by then lost her sight, Mr. Farraday read my first novel to her. Hearing of that continued caring touched my heart, and thinking I had fulfilled a promise that she had spotted before it had occurred to the awkward kid in whom she saw it made me feel, yeah, proud. Though I must admit, there are passages in that book, at which my image of this reading, makes me softly cringe – and smile.