Jeanne Bedwell died last week on Monday, February 5, 2024. She was my senior English teacher in high school.
She was the teacher everyone said was “really hard.” After Jim Ritz retired the year or two before, she was the “oldest” teacher, the one who had been there since after Morgan’s Raiders tore through town in the Civil War. The one who chewed up student’s homework for breakfast and spit it out at them for lunch.
None of this was remotely true. Except the part where Jim Ritz retired and she was the most senior English teacher in the department. But as much as she would have liked to witness it, I don’t think she was there for Sherman’s march to the sea.
Students — as I’ve come to learn — think anytime you ask them to revise something or offer feedback you’re “hard” and “a stickler.”
It took me nearly 20 years to figure out that what she was really doing was giving a damn.
Jeanne Bedwell recognized that words had meaning. She believed that if you’re going to write something or communicate to another person, the words and ideas you’re expressing should be cogent, clear, and interesting. It may not be interesting to all people all the time, but if you’ve never read student English papers you might not realize that most of the submissions read more like someone sneezed over a Scrabble board full of tiles.
I can honestly say I neither loved nor hated her class. I was indifferent to it the way teenagers are to most things. But I found her fair. She was the kind of disciplinarian that doesn’t just demand respect, she deserved it.
I believe we read Pride and Prejudice in senior English. I think we read Beowulf, too, and I can honestly tell you I hated both of those. It was only until last year that I read someone explaining why it’s important to read classics by Jane Austen, Shakespeare, and others: they were first. They were the first of their kind or genre in the English-speaking world, and, thus, that makes them more important. The same way Jurassic Park is an important movie because it was the first to make truly excellent use of CGI. That makes sense to me now. I suspect I could have asked Mrs. Bedwell that 18 years ago and she’d have said exactly that, but I wasn’t smart enough then to have known to ask or what to ask.
After I graduated high school she and I remained in contact. She asked me if I could help her establish a simple blog and I helped her register and set up jeannebedwell.com. She remained a client for 18 years until last week. Her death has rekindled my greatest fear and my hobby horse of what can we do to preserve websites for posterity? All of her genealogy work, writings, and snippets of things that mattered to her are there until the domain comes up for renewal this December, or, the site just data rots and fails. We have to do better.
On my ocassional visits to Salem after graduating she’d ask me to swing by her house to investigate some new computer issue, something I had done many a Friday night while I was a student. She was always professional and above-board with her evaluation of me as a student, but we’d spend a lot of time talking. This was an era when Windows PCs crawled and gnawed at hard drives, so doing just about anything took a while to wait for bits to move around.
We’d talk about her kids, whom she adored, and she’d talk about what her husband Max was doing — usually volunteering at the hospital and this or that other service organization. But what really got her going was politics. The woman was a dyed-in-the-wool liberal, progressive Democrat. It must have been lonely being in Salem these last few election cycles.
A lot of students probably disliked her for what they perceived as slights against them. Mrs. Bedwell had a strong aversion to scented stuff like aerosols and perfumes because it caused her headaches. It’s why she didn’t teach a first period class, “So everyone’s hair spray and shampoo can have time to dissipate.” I genuinely believe she was sensitive to stong chemical smells, the same way I dislike scented candles for the same reason. But I also know she had a strong aversion to mornings, and perhaps not having a 1st period class was also a request she made to avoid having to function before 9 a.m. I’m sure if I looked at her and said, “That seems convenient, doesn’t it?” She’d just laugh with a wry smile.
Her teaching career was surely a defining moment of her life. But she was also a deeply thorough genealogist and, despite her self-professed ignorance of technology, she recognized when new tech could help her. The Internet must have reigned as one of the best things to happen in her lifetime simply because it allowed her to research her ancestors and support many of the clubs, groups, and organizations she was involved with. All the kinds of things you’d expect from a good, progressive, woman.
I emailed her sometime in early November, not long before Thanksgiving, and asked how she was doing. Her emails were much shorter than they used to be — likely from an inability to see and focus on a screen for long amid other ailments. But she was sharp and recognized her plight saying, “Falling apart fast” and “I’m fairly close to the rainbow bridge but hanging on for the moment. Very sorry I had to drop my monthly support but I need the money to pay my helpers. It is a sad state of affairs. Hope you are doing well.”
Even at a time she was losing her strength and ability to move, she was worried about one of her students. She had been paying me just enough to cover the costs of her website domain and hosting for years, but I never really made any money on it. But when I started working on my book on the Tri-State Tornado, she was immediately interested and became my first supporter on this site, donating to help me cover the costs of travel and research. I noticed when her subscription stopped, but didn’t say anything.
I imagine it must make an English teacher feel something akin to pride when a former student goes on to publish a book. I was truly looking forward to giving her a signed copy when it releases in early 2025. But that can’t happen now, of course, and it makes me sad. But there are surely bits of her education in it. It’s hard for me to see the word “that” in a sentence and not think, “I bet I can remove that word.”
She will be missed, and I will do my best to figure out how to preserve her digital estate the best I can.