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 smokerâ€™s cackle â€“ the tenth time sheâ€™d heard it! â€“ you were on top of the world. She treated us all like grown-ups whoâ€™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.