A Quiet Blinding Light
Those who educate children well are more to be honored than they who produce them; for these only gave them life those the art of living well.” - Aristotle
If you saw Sharon Grieshaber on the street, you might not look twice. A smallish woman with short-cropped hair and a completely unassuming demeanor, pleasant enough but not outgoing or effusive in either her words or her movements, she would likely be going on her way with eyes forward and a certain step. Nothing about her would make her stand out from anyone around her. Sharon Grieshaber stayed within herself.
But in a classroom she became a different entity altogether, as intimidating as a defensive tackle, as demanding a coach as Vince Lombardi, as fast and as quick as Usain Bolt.
The classroom was sacred space to Sharon Grieshaber, and those who entered it were commanded to reverence. This quiet woman, usually sitting behind the desk she had placed front and center, often carrying a smile that could be almost mischievous but was certainly confident, just a bit taller than five feet and slight as a bird in winter, brought even the brassiest among us to heel. We had no choice. This was her space, and we sat within it only by her allowance.
And to this day I thank the Fates that placed me there. Sharon Grieshaber changed me forever.
High school honors English, and none of us really knew what we were about to experience. English classes to that point had been relatively simple to that point - read a few books, regurgitate whatever themes the teacher put out there, and maybe conjugate a verb or two while spinning through a basic grammar text. Essays written to spec, just long enough to meet minimum requirements. Perhaps a trip to a book store to find some Cliff notes. Nothing special in any of it.
But then junior year, and Sharon Grieshaber rolled through us like a runaway intellectual freight train. Her quiet voice carried words we had not heard before, challenges to the ideas and points we had always assumed to be inviolable, exhortations to question everything we touched, and that touched us. From the first week, we sat spellbound.
It began early, with a September assignment to bring in an advertisement from a magazine or a newspaper, then rip it apart. Find the assumptions, tear up the logical flaws, see what the ad is really trying to say, the illusion it’s trying to paint. Measure it against the facts you know, and identify the ways in which it distracts you from them. Tear it all up. Think logically. Think critically.
She assigned us the great works. We spent much of the autumn term dissecting Moby Dick, where she taught us to read a book in layers, to find the subtler themes that lay below and behind the narrative. She cautioned us from the superficial. “A great book is not impressionistic,” I remember her saying. “A great book invites excavation.” So Moby Dick, we learned, was more than just a whaling tale. It was a religious treatise, a study in cetology, an allegory of man’s infinite obsessions, an analysis of our innate spiritual quest. By the time we were through it, most of us were exhausted.
The week before spring break she assigned us Thoreau’s Walden, but not just to read. We were to journal our responses to Thoreau, chapter by chapter. Our journals were due three days after break ended. Where our classmates might have spent their days running to the beach or hiking the San Gabriel mountains, we were bound to a 19th century philosophical justification for independent thought and action. It made for a bloody hell of a vacation. But when we submitted those journals, I remember hearing more satisfactions than complaints. We had done something very much out of the ordinary, and it didn’t feel nearly as bad as we had anticipated.
I ended that year with an unspoken regret. I had spent the year in an intellectual wrestling match with the sharpest, most focused teacher I had ever encountered. Within those nine months Mrs. Grieshaber taught me to think critically, to trust my own interpretations, to look deeply into and behind whatever I might see in front of me. She taught me the inestimable, precious timelessness of independent thought. No one before had ever come close to that. Few people afterward would ever do so. And I think I knew at the time that I would never encounter an instructor who would so breathtakingly change the way I looked at the world.
That year pushed me further past the simplicities of childhood. Sharon Grieshaber buffed and polished a previously shapeless, mushy mind, sharpened its edges, and, because she cherished the product, made me cherish it, too.
Two years ago, Kevin, my great, brilliant and creative friend from those years, who shared my regard for the woman and with whom together we marveled at her impact on both of us, suggested we get in touch with Mrs. Grieshaber to thank her for what she had meant to us. We wanted to tell her that we had tried our best to use what she taught us, and that, despite a few bumps, we had both done rather well with it all. I had a trip to Southern California planned, and we combed our schedules to find a common time when we might take the great lady to lunch, or maybe coffee, and let her know that two of her boys remembered her well.
We were too late, though. Sharon Grieshaber was only a handful of years older than us, but she had passed the summer before. Since then I’ve thought often about her passing. I hope it was peaceful. And I hope, in the moment that her beautiful, enlightened soul left a body that had spent all it had to give, a quiet but blinding light arced through a grateful universe.