I first met Erica in August of 1985 at a school leadership conference; she immediately impressed me with her eloquence and presence. Although “from off,” Erica came to Charleston as a pilgrim, embracing the city’s Otherness rather than criticizing its eccentricity. I dare say that few scholars anywhere know as much about Charleston writers such as Beatrice Ravenel, Josephine Pinckney, and DuBose Heyward as Erica did. A few years ago, we collaborated on creating a course for adults on the literary movement known as “The Charleston Renaissance,” and although our efforts came to naught, I learned so much about Charleston’s literary legacy from working with her on the project. She was forever a teacher.
Although it’s sometimes easier for a teacher to pretend that she just doesn’t see, whenever Erica encountered bullying, student backbiting, or the twisting of truth for personal advantage, she directly confronted the offender, expressing her displeasure rationally, calmly (and with serious eye contact). On the other hand, Erica championed talented students who had acquired the reputation of being troublemakers. As I put it in the speech I delivered upon her retirement, “Erica possesses that admirable talent of being able to discern whatever diamonds may be lurking somewhere beneath the layers of mud adolescents sometimes coat themselves with. She inspired these rebels to consider the world at large as she cultivated their creativity, channeling their anger and angst into art.” How life affirming to have a wise woman as an advocate, someone who understands your youthful dissatisfaction with a wounded world. It can be life-changing.
Drama was Erica’s favorite genre, and over the years she orchestrated a number of superb student-directed productions, plays in which actors performed without microphones, having to project their voices throughout the acoustically challenged spaces of Gwenette Auditorium. She carefully chose each play according to the abilities of the senior class who performed them, on one occasion writing a script herself. More often, however, she selected plays of high literary merit, exposing students and adults to the joys of commedia de arte or the absurdities of Pirandello. I remember Jeannie Faircloth Green, the superb math teacher, leaning over to me during an intermission and remarking that “after five minutes, you forget it’s a student production.”
Ultimately, however, teachers earn their pay in the classroom. As our mentor Sue Chanson has said, an excellent English teacher can teach at any level. Throughout her career, Erica taught sixth graders, and seniors, and grades in between, introducing them to Pip and Estella via Dickens, touring the Lake District with Wordsworth and Coleridge, guiding well-to-do eighteen-year-olds through the impoverished, labyrinthian streets of Dostoyevsky’s St. Petersburg. She taught impressionable souls how language functions, how it can sing — or screech — and how to manipulate words to convey melody or cacophony according to the writer’s purpose. Being able to string sweet sounds together to embody devotion is a valuable skill, but being able to rat-a-tat Anglo-Saxon plosives that spit like machine gun fire can also come in handy. Porter-Gaud’s reputation as a school that produces superb writers owes an enormous debt to Erica Lesesne, who had a hand in creating the English Department’s curriculum. And, oh, the hours she spent carefully assessing writing, circling misplaced modifiers, bracketing fragments, praising deft phraseology and clear thinking. Each student, handled with care. Taken seriously.
Erica Lesesne lived a good life and has left a legacy that will live on, not only in the memory of her devoted family — Dan, Emma, and Daniel, their spouses, and their children — but also in the memories of a generation of students who were so very lucky to have her as a teacher. For the sake of our own children, let’s hope the cliché “they don’t make ‘em like that anymore” isn’t true.
Good night, sweet Erica.