Oliver: Lessons of beloved teacher last lifetime

Good teachers encourage, inspire and influence.

Great teachers do even more than that. They touch our lives in ways that last a lifetime.

One of my favorite teachers of all time – Mrs. Dianne Flint – is retiring from McHenry West High School.

I’m not alone in my affection. Over the years, I’ve met many of her former students, whose eyes light up at the mention of our beloved English and history teacher.

We all have stories to tell, whether it was about The Beatles, the poster-covered walls of her classroom or her liberal use of the word “YES” in speech and in writing.

I had the privilege of being in her American Studies class in the first year she taught at West. That would have been my junior year, back in the mid-1980s.

In my yearbook that year, Mrs. Flint wrote, along with some of her characteristically encouraging words, “Next year I will do better.”

I still have to chuckle at that, because she could scarcely have improved.

In that short year, she had completely won me over. Her combination of deep caring for me and all of her students, her wonderful eccentricity and her relentless positivity had made me a fan for life.

That “YES” of hers is more than a simple assent. It’s an affirmation for all that is good and all that is possible – in her students, in the world and in herself.

My senior year, she helped me with my valedictory address, titled “Embrace Life.” Any guesses as to the inspiration?

The path of positivity I learned from Mrs. Flint has served me well in the years since, particularly when times have been difficult or when I have wanted to give up.

Of course, that’s not to say that Mrs. Flint and I saw eye to eye on everything.

We parted ways over a poet.

For two consecutive years, I insisted on doing term papers on the works of T.S. Eliot, whose poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is among my favorites.

Despite voicing her disapproval of some of Eliot’s personal views, Mrs. Flint never once discouraged me.

In so doing, she unwittingly (or maybe intentionally) inspired a years-long internal debate: Should the personal views of the artist matter more than the art itself?

It’s something I wrestle with to this day. (Thanks, Mrs. Flint.)

She even gave me a small book of Eliot’s poems. In it, she wrote the following: “For you, dear Joan, only because you like him. Remember, we put meaning into life. Or should I say we only need to discover the meaning.”

Mrs. Flint helped me discover a world beyond what my adolescent eyes saw as the stifling claustrophobia of my hometown. She introduced me to poets, painters and thinkers.

Years after my high school graduation, imagine my delight at running into her at a Bob Dylan concert at the Sears Centre. How fitting, too.

So as Mrs. Flint rides off into retirement, I hope she knows she takes with her a love from her former students that spans decades.

Thank you so much, Mrs. Flint. You’ve really made a difference.


• Joan Oliver is the former Northwest Herald assistant news editor. She has been associated with the Northwest Herald since 1990. She can be reached at

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