Mrs. Stell Goes to Fountain Lake
When my grandfather, Dr. Jack Stell died in the mid-1950s, it took my grandmother years to recover. She’d only loved one man. Finally, at some point in the late 50s, Ruth Stell decided it was time to get up and do something. She would return to teaching. Before getting married, she’d attended Peabody Teacher’s College, a part of Vanderbilt University in Nashville. She loved English. She would be an English teacher.
So, in her mid-60’s Mrs. Ruth Stell, returned to the classroom. I find this amazing and brave. She’d given up teaching in 1918, and a few things had changed since then. But her love of her students and English literature carried her with grace. She accepted a job teaching at Fountain Lake High School, a tiny, rural school 10 or 12 miles outside of Hot Springs.
In just a few years, Mrs. Stell had a profound impact on the Fountain Lake students. To this day, more than sixty years later, her students, who are now nearly 80 or older, stop to tell me stories.
For many of those homegrown, country kids, she was the first elegant lady they’d ever met. Formal but warm, with beautiful posture and diction. And they all knew Mrs. Stell loved them.
Today a lovely older lady named Brenda stopped me in Wal Mart to talk about Mrs. Stell. “She was the greatest teacher I ever had. I remember her first day. I looked around the classroom and all the boys sat quiet as could be. The boys in our class were wild, I’d never seen them act like that. And they worked for her! We all respected and loved her so.”
Respect, that’s the word all her students mention. And so many of them say, “We wanted to make Mrs. Stell proud.”
There was something about her presence that was nearly magical. So many of her old students told me, “Even the rowdiest boys paid attention to Mrs. Stell. And when she lifted her hand we all got quiet, so they could hear every word.”
Every day, when class was over, some of her students explained, “Mrs. Stell would stand at the classroom door to shake hands with each boy and touch each girl on the shoulder. “Thank you for coming to my class today.”Mesmerized by her speech and voice, which was so elegant and formal, so precise and intentional, she almost sounded British. While teaching Shakespear’s MacBeth, Mrs. Stell had to go before the Fountain Lake School Board and ask permission to recite the line, “Out damned spot.” Teachers weren’t allowed to curse in 60s.
According to her students she would spend her entire weekend grading their papers and essays. She would give them a grade and a college grade, so they would know what to expect in college. Then she would write long, detailed paragraphs explaining what was wrong, how to improve and what was wonderful about their writing.
Ruth Stell learned to drive, at the age of 63, specifically to get to Fountain Lake. She wasn’t very good, but she was determined. Every day, she successfully parked her car, but each afternoon, after class, one of her students, would have to back her car out of the parking spot, then get her pointed in the right direction so she could drive home.
Mid-winter, when the days became dark so early, those were a problem, because she had terrible eyesight. If she stayed late to meet with the Beta Club or tutor a child, one of her students would have to drive her home. Generally, a buddy would follow in his truck to give his friend a ride home, once Mrs. Stell was safely inside her home. If the boy didn’t have anyone to follow, he’d hitchhike back to Fountain Lake.
Years later, after Mrs. Stell retired, at least once a year, a student would arrive at her beautiful colonial home on Prospect. In the fading fall light, they’d walk up the brick path to her front door, and ring the bell. All this to walk, arm in arm, with their old English teacher. All this so they could take Mrs. Stell to a Friday night Fountain Lake football game twenty years after she retired.
Once she was seated in the bleachers, her former students clamored around, hugging and shaking her hand, thanking her for all she’d done to change their lives.
My grandmother, Ruth Stell, was almost 100 years old when she died. She never recovered from the death of her husband, Dr. Jack Stell. But her heart grew and expanded as she learned to love a bunch of rough-cut, country kids from Fountain Lake, Arkansas.