Fire Starter

Cobbe portrait, claimed to be a portrait of Wi...
Image via Wikipedia

A good teacher is like a candle – it consumes itself to light the way for others.  ~Author Unknown

The tardy bell buzzed as if somewhere in the educational firmament a student contestant had incorrectly answered a $ 100 question.   It was the autumn of my junior year of high school and according to my older brother, the elective class – Creative Writing, would deliver an easy A for students who could string together a few coherent sentences and devour five novels of their own choosing over the course of the semester. He simply referred to it as “Creative Cake”.

The distorted grading curve of this class was not a well-kept secret and the faculty mistakenly perceived its popularity to be a function of its ancient educator, Mrs R.  I surveyed the crowded class – an entire back row was filled with football players – joking and shifting awkwardly in desks that could barely withstand their weight.  Unlike other classes that tended to filter students into a hierarchy of ability – electives did not seem to distinguish between those who were serious about English and those who spoke and wrote it as a second language.

Our teacher, Mrs. R, was missing in action.  She was well past her educational buy/sell date and was playing out her final years teaching a few elective courses.  She was a slow-moving creature whose sentimental detours and sepia fascination with the past, all but ensured that we would could pass notes and do homework while she waxed poetically about the Hemmingway or Melville.

Our classroom door opened and a plain young woman with hornrimmed glasses replete with thick celluloid frames moved to the closet.  Removing her overcoat (it was 90 degrees outside), she advanced quickly to the board and proceeded to decisively inscribe her name in chalk: Miss S – Creative Writing. A great panic swept the room as we realized that our sloth-like octogenarian with the benevolent grading curve had been relieved of duty by someone who appeared to be a refugee from the TV show, “Leave It To Beaver.”

She turned and stared at the befuddled knot of muscles, hair, dolphin shorts and surfer tee shirts.  “Je sais, mais une liberté et c’est la liberté de l’esprit.” We hesitated, hoping that she was the new French teacher lost and asking for directions.

She smiled and translated  “I know but one freedom, and that is the freedom of the mind. Ladies and gentleman that was written by Antoine de Saint-Expury, the author of The Little Prince.”

Having established her utter and complete intellectual prowess, this Bodleian Library refugee gathered up our mongrel band of misfits — verbally challenged and uninspired teens and marched us through a millennium of creative writers who had succeeded in transforming their pens into instruments of social and political change.

Miss S would scold us in French and quote the great writers like an evangelist might conjure scripture.  I once cut class and attempted to lie my way into avoiding detention.  She stared at me expressionless – enjoying my grand fabrication.  “ Facts and truth really do not have much to do with each other, do they Michael.  Wasn’t that William Faulkner brilliant?  Why he could have been your older brother the way he seems to understand how your devious mind works.”  She was particularly fond of Faulkner -a writer I found tedious.  She seemed to know this and would barrage me with his verse.  Others might recieve lessons from Steinbeck or Kerouac.  Why belittle me with this pedantic Southern bore?

She was blunt, unadorned and as plain as a museum curator. She chose long conservative dresses and a signature rain- coat irrespective of the temperature.  It was as if a seam in time had opened from the 1950s where she had been dispatched to ignite creativity in a flagging generation that could no longer see the rich garden of verse that lay before them like an endless fertile plain. She opened our eyes to writers who had moved before us like great shadows across the American landscape.

“ Oh, men do change.” she once confided to the female members of the class, “and change comes like a little wind that ruffles the curtains at dawn, and it comes like the stealthy perfume of wildflowers hidden in the grass. John Steinbeck knew men…He understood that men evolve.”  The girls would sigh and then give us each a dirty look seeing us for what we were – a less developed species that could only transform with time and rigorous cultivation.

It was during that autumn of 1977 that my passion for English Literature was ignited like a grass fire. Over the course of the semester, we became poets, writers of mystical Haiku, authors of our own epitaphs and O’Henry novelists attempting to chronicle our sacred and profane tales of suburban life. She was our captain and like a Dead Poets Society, we were bound in leather and verse.

Each night, I would watch Miss S climb into her ’68 Ford Galaxy, the kind of vehicle that is never purchased but handed down until the day it simply dies.  She would disappear presumably into a spinster’s life of flickering televisions, 60 watt bulbs, poorly written papers and pop quizzes.  Our curiosity about our leader was never satisfied.  She was a shadow that one would easily pass by without understanding the riches that hid beneath its simple veneer.  She had no partner choosing to live with her adult brother and her parents.  She deflected all attempts to color in the bland lines of her own life.  It was as if we were her reason to exist.

A year later, I would win an award for English at our senior honors assembly.  I saw her later and she explained her preoccupation with Faulkner.  ” I will not use Faulkner on just anyone, Michael. You are intelligent enough to understand what he is trying to say.” The fire was now a conflagration that carried into college and a richer journey into the litturgy of man.  I would occasionally stop by the high school and she would be there – chirping in French and leavening an otherwise boring 5th period class with humor and perspective. 

It would be years later that my mother would call me across 500 miles to share tragic news. “Hon, there was a double homicide/suicide in an adjacent town.  Apparently, it was Miss S’ brother – he killed his parents and then homself.  I guess all these years she had been caring for her elderly parents and her brother who suffered from severe schizophrenia.  She found them all – – dead.  I am so, so sorry.  I know you were close to her.”

I remember sitting in that numb, angry, out of body purgatory where it is impossible to wrap your mind around senseless tragedy.  I could not understand a cosmos where dark deeds were allowed to reach in and savage such an innocent light.

She never did return to our school and vanished like so many of life’s refugees of tragedy.  I’d like to think she found a small town, nestled in a safe, cradled valley filled with kind neighbors who delivered food in times of trouble and who’d check in on you every so often just to be certain that everything is fine.  I imagine her starting another fire in the mind of some awkward teen, spoon-feeding him morsels of Faulkner and Hemmingway.

I stare out my window.  I am now gray and have seen the harder edges of life.  I cannot recall who won the 1977 Superbowl, World Series, NBA Finals or Daytona 500.  I cannot recall who held key public offices or even who appeared on the cover of Time Magazine.  But I can remember that teacher.  I see her face every day and I can hear her lilting voice as she perfumes the room with perfect French. I imagine every aspect of her intelligent and sympathetic countenance.  I hear her chastise me, “ Michael!” in exaggerated disappointment as I fail to answer a question.  And then I wait – – for a quote – a golden nugget harvested from the deep river of Harper Lee, or the gentle streams of William Shakespeare.

I like to think she is out there – – with that silly raincoat and those horn-rimmed, docent glasses.  Somewhere she is smiling at a student and quoting De Exupery. 

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”