May 6, 2014 – In the fall of 1966, my third grade teacher, Mrs. Roslyn Hartsell, showed the class a photograph she’d clipped from a magazine over the weekend. It was a black and white still of an old man’s hands, serenely folded in his lap. Our instructions were simple: write a short story about the image. Without hesitation, I put my freshly sharpened #2 to a crisp sheet of blue-lined notebook paper and let my imagination run wild. While the other children turned in their stories with titles such as “My Grandfather’s Hands” and “Saying a Prayer,” it was my story that got Mrs. Hartsell’s attention. Luridly titled “Jack Arthur: Serial Killer,” it told of the gruesome murders of one Lois Jackson (strangled) and her friend Rose Hillbird (stabbed), the chief of police (shot), and the governor (M.O. unknown) at the old man’s hands of its titular psychopath, and how the FBI ultimately trapped and killed him in a bloody shoot out in a mountain shack.
Today, this most likely would be seen as symptomatic of some mental depravity, resulting in panicked calls to my parents, mandatory counseling, drug testing, psychiatric evaluation, and possible suspension. But Mrs. Roslyn Hartsell saw it as a sign of a kid who’d probably seen too many episodes of The FBI (R.I.P Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.), had a healthy imagination, and perhaps even a bright future as a writer. Throughout the year, she continued to bring in photographs that struck her fancy, and we continued to exercise our creative muscles so that by school year’s end in 1967, each student had enough stories to self-publish our collections. We even designed and executed our own cover art. In my case, I like to believe the contents outshone the packaging:
On the last day of school, Mrs. Hartsell gave me something that remains my most prized possession, and follows me from office to office as I pursue my vagabond career:
People often ask me when I knew I wanted to be a writer, and I always reply without hesitation, giving full credit to Mrs. Roslyn Hartsell at Briarlake Elementary in Tucker, Georgia. She nurtured and encouraged creativity with passion and kindness. As it turns out, she only taught at Briarlake for two years, and I was lucky enough to be in her classroom for one of them. Years later, I started searching for her, just wanting to check in and says thanks. It was my computer savvy mom who finally located her, and when we at last spoke over the phone after some forty-five years had lapsed, I was both astonished and pleased that she actually remembered me as “a well-spoken little boy whose hair was always perfectly combed.” Since that first conversation, we’ve spoken several times, and she still takes great interest in whatever I’m working on.
So, in honor of Teacher Appreciation Day, a shout out to Roslyn Hartsell, who tops my list of extraordinary educators who made a real and immeasurable difference in my life. Stay tuned…