Mrs. Gill and the Misfit Toy


By Jock Lauterer

A young English teacher sits primly at a desk surrounded by her adoring students who are cutting up as the high school yearbook photographer snaps this staged photograph.

The photograph captures a pivotal moment, an inflection point in the life of the young man at the right, holding his ‘50s-era “Rolleicord,” a German twin-lens reflex camera — a beast of a tool not designed for beginners, which I so clearly was. The “Rollei” represented an ambitious giant step up from the Kodak “Flashmite,” a beginner’s automatic camera that blasted everything in the foreground with its blinding flashbulb.

That I am standing here at this moment in the winter of 1962 with The Proconian staff of Chapel Hill High School is due entirely to the intuition and insight of the English teacher, Martha Gill (drafted to teach journalism, I suspect — as high school English teachers so often are). It was this gifted teacher, who, a year before this photo was made, recognized my true calling.

No CHHS’er who ever had “Miz Gill” for English or journalism will ever forget the grammar maven: firm, stern, no nonsense and utterly devoted to her students — especially the staff of the high school newspaper. Surrounding the seated Mrs. Gill, we are (left to right), Pat Mann, James Gilmore, Terrell Seawell, Sally Ivey, Melanie Ripperton and Yr Hmbl Svt (with the old Rollei I still use to this day)

It happened like this: one day after school while The Proconian staff had gathered for an informal work session, I was showing my little scrapbook of snapshots to my buddies, when Mrs. Gill chanced to walk unnoticed into the work room, and noticed all the kids gathered around me, pointing and laughing at my snaps.

Sneaking a peek over my shoulder at my pictures, she uttered the apocryphal words that forever changed my life: “Why, Jock,” she said in real surprise, “You’re a photographer!”

Her choice of words and emphasis are critical here, because up until that moment, I had utterly floundered as a writer, reporter or ad sales rep; my future as a journalist was not looking good.

But by what the Buddhists call “an auspicious coincidence,” Mrs. Gill had found a role for me, her Misfit Toy.

And thus, she launched me.

I am writing this post-Thanksgiving missive because yesterday I stumbled across Mrs. Gill’s Facebook page. In her 80s now I’m guessing, she appears as active and impactful as ever, working with the Knox County Public Library in Knoxville, Tenn.

She replied to my Facebook shout-out with a cryptic and laconic response that shouldn’t surprise me.

My old mentor wrote back, “The sands of time.”

The soul of brevity. Will Strunk would approve.

On behalf of The Proconian staff of 1962-63, happy holidays to our Zen master teacher. And to all teachers everywhere, struggling through the challenges of remote teaching, we salute you, too. Take heart; this may be your finest hour.

Jock Lauterer began selling newspapers for Jim Shumaker and Roland Giduz on the streets of Chapel Hill at the age of 8. For the last 20 years, he has served as a senior lecturer and adjunct professor at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media, teaching photojournalism and community journalism.

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3 Comments on "Mrs. Gill and the Misfit Toy"

  1. Jock, enjoy reading your articles and viewing your pictures as much as I did in our Forest City days. Keep up the good work.

  2. Jock, thanks so much for this article and the picture – you brought back similar intense memories of my wonderful, caring teachers. Bless them all and every great teacher who has followed them.

  3. Ah, the memories you stirred, Cuz, of teachers who recognized the talents I might have and cleverly nudged me toward fulfilling a promise they saw long before I did. I’m thinking about them now, which is perhaps their and our reward, that we’re remembered as having made a difference in someone’s life.

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