When tragedy hits, even the more minor, mundane events such as the passing of a beloved high school teacher, I generally process by writing. When I found out that Susan “Sue” Davis—she’ll always be Miss Davis to me—passed away, I was somewhat at a loss for words. It took me half a day to process and even more time to write this out. Miss Davis was one of those individuals that is bigger than life, and thus in my mind able to transcend it. For that reason, I was shocked and saddened to hear that she had passed.
It is impossible to know the full extent of Miss Davis’ impact on her students. She was incredibly active as a teacher, and brought a kind of stern, cosmopolitan air to the little town of Battle Mountain, Nevada where I spent my formative high school years. I'd always thought she came from somewhere more fantastic like New York, or Los Angeles, and simply ended up in Battle Mountain. The truth is that she was from that town, and returned to it to teach, giving back to the community where she would have the greatest impact. I don't know if that was her plan or simply the stream of events, but either way I am certainly better for it, and eternally grateful.
Firm but fair easily describes Miss Davis, as a woman who owned every room she walked into by force of will alone. She was something of an imposing figure too. In my mind, I remember her being at least as tall as I am, around six-feet-plus. That’s probably more a credit to her strength of character, which can sometimes translate in our memory as physically larger than life. When I attended Battle Mountain High School from 1988 to 1990, Miss Davis was a fixture of the school. She was spoken of in a kind of fearful hush, as if she might suddenly materialize, peering at you over the rims of her glasses with a knowing look.
Miss Davis, as my mother remarked to me, was one of a kind, “The smartest English teacher who influenced me and you!” It’s true. Miss Davis seemed to see the special everywhere She saw something in me, and allowed me to design my own English curriculum (within reason), which included reading Hemingway, Asimov, and Howard Carter. I was allowed and encouraged to work on short stories, and develop longer works. I wrote my first fantasy stories in that class, and the DNA of those forays remain in my current works. In many ways, I wouldn’t have really embraced writing without Miss Davis.
Five or six years ago, I found out that Miss Davis was the principal for Battle Mountain High School, and I figured that made sense. I was just about to release my first book, and started writing a letter to her, to tell her of my success and the role she’d played in it. It felt like bragging, so I never sent it. It’s the only regret that I have in regards to Sue Davis. I have no doubt she knew, fully, the impact she had on her students, but it’s always nice to get one more letter of thanks.
I remember Miss Davis as being incredibly active, coming into our theater rehearsal slightly out of breath from a workout she’d managed to sneak in, while we lazy teens all lounged around. When she offered a creative writing class, I leapt at the chance. Miss Davis was the high school theater “director” and the coach for Academic Decathlon. She took groups of students to far-away and magical places like Reno to experience theater and ballet and jazz. I spent countless hours, under her guidance with some of my best friends.
Miss Davis is exactly who I think of as the anonymous speaker from Emily Dickenson:
Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility –
We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring –
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –
We passed the Setting Sun –
I have little doubt that Miss Davis was active, right up to the end, and that Death had to pull up in his carriage, get out, knock on her door and wait. She would have peered at him, over the tops of her glasses, slightly annoyed at the intrusion, heaved a large sigh and said, "Well, if I must."
Miss Davis, you are missed.