Thursday, March 28, 2013
A Tribute to the Tough Nuts
Janis Morrison was a legend at Oak Grove High School. A legend, I’m telling you. As early as 9th grade we began hearing from our English teachers, “Mrs. Morrison won’t accept work like this!” Wide eyed, we struggled through our essays and papers, fearing that once we made it to Mrs. Morrison’s senior English class we would be found wanting. And it was true: she was hard to please. Our rough drafts came back looking like her pen had exploded all over the paper: scribbled notes, corrections, even admonitions scrawled all over the margins. (“Corley!” she once wrote on something of mine. I didn’t need an explanation. I knew what she meant.)
Janis Morrison was a brilliant woman. I don’t think there was a book she hadn’t read. The woman knew things. She had the sharpest wit of anyone I know; her jokes and comments would fly over your head if you weren’t paying attention. Her humor was subtle and quiet, but you leaned in to listen because she was hilarious. She was my favorite.
Today is the fifth anniversary of the day she died.
I’ve written about her many times in the last five years as I grieved her passing. A remarkable, extraordinary, caring educator. A brilliant woman. A wonderful mother and grandmother. We kept in touch after I graduated and moved away, emailing back and forth and getting together for visits. I loved her and she loved me. Knowing that is what has brought me the most comfort since we lost her.
But you know what? She wasn’t easy to get to know. I had to make an effort: be on time for class. Meet deadlines. Demonstrate to her that I wanted to do well. It helped we shared a sense of humor. But she wasn’t exactly sentimental or sweet. She was what I like to call a ‘tough nut.’ She didn’t accept any lame excuses. She didn’t apologize for demanding excellence. She wasn’t afraid to say the hard things if it helped us in the long run.
Have you ever shelled a pecan? You have to crack it open before you get to the good stuff on the inside. You enjoy the taste more because you have to work for it. That’s what I mean by the term tough nut. If you’ve ever read To Kill a Mockingbird, Miss Maudie Atkinson is a perfect example. Or if you’re a Harry Potter fan, Minerva McGonagall is a total tough nut. They both come across as hard-nosed but occasionally give us a glimpse that there is some tenderness underneath. If you’re willing to get past the imposing exterior, more often than not you have found a treasure.
I’m not a tough nut; I never will be. But I love stumbling upon them. One of my favorite seminary professors absolutely qualifies. When I first had her for class and realized she was a tough nut and that I absolutely adored her, I naturally wanted to hug her. This probably doesn’t make sense to you. Looking back it doesn’t make much sense to me either. But class had dismissed for the Thanksgiving holiday and I was feeling sentimental. So on the way out of class I told her goodbye and asked if I could give her a hug. Her response: “If you want to.” I can’t even type that without laughing! What’s even funnier is I then went in for an awkward side-hug that would make Jon Acuff cringe. Now when I see her, we hug and it’s no big deal. But I had to work for that privilege. And I didn’t mind a bit, because she’s worth it.
I don’t know what it is about these unique people: maybe it’s knowing somewhere under the tough exterior is a softer side reserved for the very few. Maybe it’s knowing I’m one of the few who get to see the softer side. Whatever it is, I know my life is richer and I’m a better person for having known them, these tough nuts. And so today, when I’m remembering Mrs. Morrison and her impact on my life, I honor them all. Thank God for allowing me to learn from such a beautiful variety of people.
Any tough nuts in your life? I’d love to hear about them!