I still don't wear grown-up clothes.
It's especially hard to talk to home folks, people who knew you back when you forgot to feed your goldfish and held up your knee socks with rubber bands.
So here I am in my hometown, holding forth. After my speech, a smiling woman wearing a T-shirt that says "Michelangelo" greets me. She's using a walker. I'm not surprised to see her; she's loyal that way.
At Robert E. Lee High School, Wynona Hall was an English teacher and the student newspaper sponsor. And, yes, the two are related.
She's behind a walker because she recently had knee surgery. She's wearing Michelangelo on her chest because she went to Italy. Behind the walker.
Somehow Wynona Hall never changes. She wears her hair the same way she did 40 years ago. Her smile is warm and genuine on her sweet, unlined face. Her laugh remains contagious.
I've always been grateful to Mrs. Hall because she convinced me that there might be a way to make a living with my one semi-marketable skill. She never laughed at my overwrought poetry or lavender prose. She simply told me not to split an infinitive or end a sentence in a preposition.
Wynona Hall knew I was but a guppy, not frying size.
I was on the staff of the paper called The Stars and Bars. We were supposed to sell ads as well as write stories. Such is the grand tradition of community journalism. I could check out of sixth period class and dart about the community asking merchants if they'd buy advertising.
I wasn't any good at that part of the game. I'm still not good at selling. And, truth be known, some of us spent more time sipping milkshakes at McDonald's than earnestly trying to recruit advertisers.
Somehow, despite that, the newspaper always came out on time replete with community ads. Wynona Hall herded our amateurish efforts into coherent news and features and something resembling a newspaper. We always made deadline. I considered a newspaper some kind of miracle. Still do.
People love to cuss their newspapers, but if you ever sat in a newspaper planning session at 2 p.m. and saw the finished product at 2 a.m., you'd cut reporters and editors a little more slack. That it happens at all ...
I've often rhapsodized about tough but kindly editors who influenced my career. I've also talked about no-nonsense college journalism professors who drilled into my thick head the elements of style as defined by William Strunk and E.B. White.
But thinking back, it might have been my early English teachers - Marie Holloway, Helene Sutliff, Helen Blackshear, Wynona Hall - who had as much to do with my work as anyone.
They are the ones who taught me to write a short, declarative sentence. Who strung words on a diagram like ornaments on a Christmas tree. Who hammered home the grammatical foundation on which great masterpieces and simple stories alike must rest.
Syndicated columnist Rheta Grimsley Johnson lives near Iuka. Contact her at Iuka, MS 38852. To find out more about Rheta Grimsley Johnson and her books, visit www.rhetagrimsleyjohnsonbooks.com.