'The most important teacher of my life'

James Lileks remembers “Mrs. H,” his speech coach at Fargo North High in North Dakota.

She . . . tore apart our arguments and built them back up, taught us to construct a thesis, rebut on the fly and think on our feet, act like junior Barrymores, deliver a humorous speech or a tearjerking monologue, then head over to the Extemporaneous Speaking round and whip a defense of Israel or the 55-MPH speed limit out of our own heads in 15 minutes. She had a sense of sarcasm sharp enough to shave granite in micrometer-thin slices. When you got one of her exfoliating critiques you felt it down to the bone, and when she reacted to your humorous speech with her dry smoker’s cackle – the tenth time she’d heard it! – you were on top of the world. She treated us all like grown-ups who’d unaccountably ended up in high school, but she wasn’t our peer and she wasn’t our pal; if we doubted her authority, it took one arched eyebrow to bat us back into place. She expected victory and she got it. She loved us and we loved her. She was the most important teacher of my life.

Back in Fargo for his 30th high school reunion, he called her to thank her.

She was dismissive of her impact, but I had to set her straight on that. She gave me confidence and craft, without which energy and ideas just fizz away. I will always owe you everything.

Rhoda J. Hansen, 79, died on May 9, a few weeks after her husband Delmar’s death.

About Joanne


  1. “She gave me confidence and craft, without which energy and ideas just fizz away.”

    That is so profound.

    What a blessing a competent, impassioned, hard-working teacher can be!

    Would that we could compensate them for half what they are worth.

    Moreover, we should make every effort to replicate their role/impact on the life of another. What an honor to their legacy; what a better world this would be!

  2. What a great rememberance for a remarkable teacher. But even more so, a remarkable student who realized what a great teacher he had. How would today’s students react to just such a teacher?