Remembering Ms. Niggli
by Gurney Chambers
Shortly before her death, Ms. Niggli told a group of my professional colleagues that when I enrolled in her freshman English composition class at Western Carolina College in 1957, I could neither read nor write. While this was a gross exaggeration of my deficiencies in the skills of reading and writing, I was not offended by her statement. I knew it was intended as a compliment, as an expression of how proud she was that within a period of ten years I had progressed from a student of hers to a professional colleague with his own students.
Ms. Niggli was my teacher in both of Western’s required composition courses and in one of its two required literature courses. After my first course with her, I went out of my way to enroll in as many of her classes as possible.
I’ve been asked what Ms. Niggli was like as a teacher. She was, above all, interesting: the content of her teaching was absorbing and the occasional revelations about her life outside teaching were fascinating. The students’ attention heightened when she injected comments about celebrities into her lectures: Marilyn Monroe, she said, contrary to popular opinion, was a great actress. Robert Taylor and Tyrone Power, we heard, were two of Hollywood’s most handsome men.
I have vivid memories of Ms. Niggli sitting at her desk, smoking, and tapping the ashes of her cigarette into the trash can, which was strategically placed to the right-hand side of her desk. (At least she meant to tap the ashes into the trash can; more often than not, the ashes landed on the floor beside the can, an outcome that did not go unnoticed by the students.)
She once told the class: “I don’t know the rules of grammar; I can’t recite them to you. I just know when something is correct or incorrect.” Her students learned to speak and write more clearly, concisely, and correctly not by the systematic study of grammar, but by writing – and write we did. We wrote paragraphs; we critiqued poetry; we wrote term papers. At the time, I was captivated by the Reverend Billy Graham’s oratorical skills. I am sure Ms. Niggli was not as impressed with Mr. Graham as I was, but when I told her of my interest in his oratory, she said “Why don’t you write your term paper on the magnetic personality of Billy Graham?” And so I did.
Students at Western in those days were required to memorize 500 lines of poetry. When I was taking American Literature with Ms. Niggli, one of her assignments was to write a critique of Robert Frost’s “Birches.” I liked the poem, so I studied it carefully, memorized some, if not all, of the lines, and gave free reign to my imagination. I regret that I do not still have the critique. When she returned the paper, I found this comment scribbled at the end: “This is professional criticism.” Is it any wonder that I loved Ms. Niggli?
Someone has written or said that Ms. Niggli “did not tolerate fools gladly.” I am not sure exactly the meaning the author of this statement attaches to the word “fool,” but there were times in Ms. Niggli’s classes when I felt like a fool and yet she reacted to my ignorance with matter-of-fact kindness. I remember that in one of those inevitable late-night discussions in the dormitory, a classmate and I argued about the correctness of saying “It don’t matter.” Even though I had made A’s and B’s on my English courses in high school and was making an A in Miss Niggli’s class, my home environment still trumped on occasion what I had learned in school. I was convinced there was nothing grammatically wrong with saying or writing “It don’t matter.” To resolve the issue, my fellow student and I consulted Miss Niggli, who, of course, told us the expression was not grammatical. I have always appreciated her handling the matter in a way that did not leave my precarious self-esteem irreparably damaged.
Ms. Niggli’s kind and gentle teaching style is reflected in her response to a question I asked during a class discussion about religion and ethical and moral behavior. The exact details of this discussion I do not recall, but I do remember vividly a question I asked and her response to it. The question, actually more of a statement, I suppose, was, “But do you really think a person can be good who isn’t a Christian?” Her response was unequivocal but nonjudgmental: “Oh, my goodness, yes.” Ms. Niggli led students gently through an examination bit by bit of their beliefs and value systems. The ultimate objective of this exercise was to help students acquire a system of beliefs and values based on reason, careful analyses, and the scientific method rather than on indoctrination and passive acceptance of beliefs instilled in them when they were children. Underpinning Ms. Niggli’s approach to teaching was the belief that the unexamined life is not worthy of a college degree.
In 1961, when I was a senior and president of the Student Body, Ms. Niggli wrote a letter to me in her capacity as Director of Theatre, asking if I would present three awards at an awards ceremony, a “Dance-Dress affair,” using the “same rules as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. . . .” Ms. Niggli concluded her letter of invitation with these words: “It would mean a great deal to the students if you would present these [awards]. It would mean a very special sentimental thing to me because you don’t know it, but you’re the first student who ever said to me, ‘Miss Niggli, will you please reserve a card for me in your next term’s English class.’ Will you do it for me, Guerney?” (In those days, registration consisted of students going directly to the instructors who had assembled on the top floor of Breese Gym and securing course enrollment cards from the professors in whose classes they wished to enroll.)
I hope Ms. Niggli was as forgiving of me for mispronouncing recompense during my presentation of the awards as I was of her for misspelling my given name in her letter of invitation. My first encounter with the term recompense was in the brief narratives about the award recipients, which I had no opportunity to read before making the presentations. Because of my ignorance of the word, recompense became “ree-com-pense,” or something like that, instead of “rek’em pens.” On the other hand, despite my being Ms. Niggli’s student in three different courses, she misspelled my name three different times in her letter. For some reason, she thought Guerney was a more probable spelling than Gurney. Maybe it was because she was more familiar with a breed of dairy cattle named Guernsey than she was with people named Gurney.
I cherish the memories I have of Ms. Niggli. Two prized items in my scrapbook are the typewritten letter she sent to me on April 19, 1961, when I was a student, and the brief handwritten note she wrote to me on September 19, 1981, when I was a colleague. The letter, I mentioned earlier. The note was an acknowledgment of the flowers I had sent during her illness not long before she died. It simply said, “Dear Gurney, Thanks for the lovely flowers. You will always be my oldest boy. Love, Josephina.”
Well, Ms. Niggli, thank you. You will always be my favorite teacher at Western, and I will always cherish being your oldest boy.
- Dr. Gurney Chambers, retired WCU professor and former student of Ms. Niggli