By Raymond Arsenault
Carolyn Phanstiel, who died earlier this week at the age of 85, was an extraordinary person. Anyone who knew her well can attest to her many sterling qualities; perhaps most notably, she had a generosity of spirit, a brilliant mind, an engaging intellect, and a sharp wit with more than a touch of whimsy.
For me, however, Carolyn was first and foremost a great teacher. From the fall of 1964 to the spring of 1965—my senior year at Fernandina Beach High School—she was my English teacher, assigned to inform and instruct her students in everything from grammar to classic works of literature. Carolyn taught us about the rules of writing and the tenets of literary criticism, passing on specific facts and skills. But she did much more than that.
In my case, at least, she opened up a whole new world of ideas and intellectual possibilities. Through her, I learned about the power of carefully chosen words and lucid expression—and about the life of the mind. I was already deeply interested in history, but she made me want to become a writer—to become someone who could communicate ideas and information with clarity and truth-telling honesty.
At the same time, against the backdrop of a quickening civil rights movement, she served as a role model of a caring, empathetic person concerned about questions of equity, inclusion, and social justice. In doing all of this with eloquence and grace, she changed my life forever, setting me on a path that I am not sure I would have found without her.
I owe her so much and will always be grateful that I had the good fortune to experience her teaching and mentoring at a critical juncture in my life.
Raymond Arsenault is the John Hope Franklin Professor of Southern History emeritus at the University of South Florida. Educated at Princeton and Brandeis Universities, he is the author or editor of a dozen books, including Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice, The Sound of Freedom: Marian Anderson, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Concert That Awakened America, Arthur Ashe, A Life, and the forthcoming John Lewis: In Search of the Beloved Community.