Tomorrow, February 21, 2014, they will lay to rest the most beloved school teacher I ever had: my high school journalism teacher, Mrs. Cowan.
Mar’Lyn Cowan died the day after St. Valentine’s Day, 96 years old, in my hometown of Springfield, Missouri. For sixteen of her years she taught the Journalism II course, the class that produced the school newspaper and yearbook for Parkview High School. I learn from her obituary notice that she and husband Louis had three daughters. I also learn that Mrs. Cowan taught Sunday School, sang in her church choir, and was active in the women’s ministry groups.
In retrospect, I don’t find her Christian faith surprising. She had her faith on display in her cheerful, encouraging attitude every day. What surprises me is the fact that she had no journalism experience when she began teaching it! Apparently she gave herself a personal crash course to prepare when she was assigned the subject matter. No doubt this reinforced the calm and gracious way she taught her young students that high goals under the pressure of deadlines could be met without panic.
I see now that she was really teaching us how to face life as adults.
To tell you about how I came to Mrs. Cowan’s high school journalism class I need to start three years earlier. In the fall of 1963, starting 8th grade, I found myself assigned to the journalism class taught by Miss Hazel Flett. My final classroom hour each day was spent with the student team that put together the school newspaper. I was named the assistant editor. Here I was introduced to the concepts of page design and layout, headlines, and measuring stories not by words but by inches. I was also introduced to the adrenaline that deadlines produce. On Thursday, November 21st, we had put the next issue of the school paper to bed and shipped it to the local printers. The next afternoon in the hallway, on my way to journalism class, I heard the agitated conversations of other students about President Kennedy’s trip to Dallas. Mrs. Flett set us to work tearing up the front page layout of our newspaper so that we could include a memorial notice. The job wasn’t finished by the time class was over.
Mrs. Flett called me at home on Saturday. She had been searching for a poem to sum up our memorial notice but she had an appointment conflict. Would I be able to get it to the local printer immediately so they could print the papers for us? I hopped on my bike and hand delivered the sheet of paper to the print shop that had kindly granted us an extension to their deadline. (I learned there are deadlines and then there are deadlines.)
As I began high school the next year I was thinking, “I’m never going to have fun like that again.” Then I learned Parkview High School also had a student newspaper. It was staffed by members of the senior class each year. All my dreams became focused on getting into that class, four years away.
Then trouble. It was not my fault but my parents, high school teachers and counselors reviewed my grades and decided I was smart enough to finish high school in three years and get a jump on college. They began pitching this idea hard during my sophomore year, trying to point out all the advantages to me. Blah, blah, blah. If I only stayed three years it meant there was no way I could get in that senior year journalism class and work on the school newspaper. Cue my lower lip. I said I would do what they wanted only if I was able to work on the school paper.
Enter into my life Mrs. Cowan. She agreed to the deal and assigned me a minor editorial desk for the 1966-67 school newspaper staff, the sole junior among all those seniors.
I don’t remember anything from the rest of that year. My first two hours of class were in the Journalism II newsroom and then there was the rest of the day until school was over. When the last bell rang I would make a bee line back to my newsroom desk. There I would pound out additional copy and short stories to submit as features to the page editors. Yes, I was a geeky kid and had no life. That year, that newsroom was my life.
School teachers must see a lot of this. And I don’t know how Mrs. Cowan began to do what she began to do.
I know, to begin with, she was just another Adult Authority Figure that I knew must be treated with respect. There had been a journalism class “transition party” where the previous year’s staff members handed over symbols of office to the incoming staff. My dad had driven me to this event somewhere in town but I needed to scramble for a ride back home when it was over. Mrs. Cowan said she would take me. During that ride home she calmly chatted with me (maybe she was doing a reporter’s interview of me?). I was so nervous about this person who had bent the rules to let me in her class that I couldn’t find a way to let her know she had driven right past my house. When I found the courage to speak up, we were a mile farther down the road. She stayed calm and serene and patiently turned the car around.
Mrs. Cowan was always calm, serene and interested. On those after school hours when I returned to the school newsroom she was sometimes also doing her end of the day stuff. She would engage in friendly conversation with all the student staffers who were popping in to wrap up assignments and projects. I think I was not alone in feeling that we were being invited to begin “grown up” conversational interaction with an adult, like adults have with each other. I began to feel it was safe to bring up opinions I was testing out about life and politics and even religion. Mrs. Cowan cultivated this maturity with her students while never relinquishing her boundaries or authority.
And she didn’t mind being frank with us. A friend of mine from those years recalls her saying resignedly, “I have the dirtiest mind of anyone on this faculty. I have to. People are always trying to slip some double entendre past me into the publications and I have to try to catch them before it’s too late!” She calmly and serenely watched the ramparts of law and civilization for us and kept her hopes that we might not betray her trust, or her job.
At the end of that year I believe Mrs. Cowan bent the rules one more time for me. It was her prerogative to give an award at the end of the school year. This customarily went to the student who had served as the editor-in-chief of the newspaper. But in that year she handed me the plaque naming me the “Most Valuable Staffer.” It is a token I treasure to this day, as I do the memory and example of this gracious lady.
And so I pray,
Into thy hands, O merciful Savior, we commend thy servant Mar’Lyn. Receive her into the arms of thy mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light.
UPDATE: I was pleased to answer a request from Mrs. Cowan’s hometown newspaper to reprint an excerpt from this column of mine.