Tuesday, August 4, 2015

In Miz Audrey's Time and Mine

So as I was just saying, I didn't really look forward to going to school very much. Just the thought of that epochal moment must've made for a pretty anxious summer.

Which is too bad, because it was supposed to be, in some sense, my last summer of freedom, or certainly of innocence. It should've been my personal version of the world's summer of 1914 or 2001. But knowing me, surely I fretted, and I'll bet my sister Martha, who was Miss Know-it-all because she was going into third grade, aided and abetted my fretting. She knew how to keep me in my place!

As someone who spent decades as a teacher, right up until all the fun and joy and spontaneity were sucked out of it by a den of vipers, I now realize that particular summer, the one in 1956, created a template for all of my summers up until I quit teaching. The summer after I left my profession was the first one since 1955 that didn't end in school buses and the cries and squeals of freshly caged teens.

So of course I was fretting! Even with all of Martha's pre-school teachings, it still felt a bit like a dark forest, a place where, more likely than not, I would come up short, I would fail, I would be singled out as a bad example. I now know you don't have to be a Tennessee Williams character to be dependent on the kindness of strangers. Every kid is. Some of the strangers are our own size. Some are grown up, giving them the power of gods.

(I wonder now if our parents were relieved to get rid of us, or, to paraphrase John Ames from Gilead, they sent us into the wilderness trusting God would "honor their love for [us] by assuring that there [would] indeed be angels" there. Probably both. Ah, what a leap of faith it takes to let them go.)

Since I've been eating, drinking, sleeping, dreaming and breathing literature since I was 9, I don't see how you can expect me to have a very realistic, objective memory of my first minutes of school. You're right, it's probably colored somewhat, but it's the only one I have:

I'm with an adult, a female, but not my mom, who would have been working at the Metal Plant. There were many women there and many children, so we must have just completed an assembly or orientation of some kind, but now we were converging on the double doors leading into the elementary school, the children positioned shield-like in front of the grown-ups. We formed a "U" being funneled into the doors like calves into a chute.
On my first day of school, the halls felt like this one.

The doors opened to a hallway that led to an open corridor which led to another set of open doors, these leading into the high school. The grown-ups, taking unfair advantage of their size and power, crowded us, then nudged us, then pushed us, closer and closer to the doors, and I understood that once I entered them, I could not come back. I must proceed down that long hall until I exited the other end as a 12th grader, someone who looked pretty much like an adult.

Those pushy adults, those child wranglers, they were all women. It was the 1950s. They were all wearing dresses.

I was 5 years old, and I still didn't understand dresses. I knew what they stood for: Women. Now I'd probably call them a "metonymy" for women, just as "pants" are a metonymy for men (and power) in the cliche "We know who wears the pants in that relationship." (Now that women are finally gaining the power and professional stress they deserve, it's only a matter of time before the cliche shifts to "We know who wears the dress in that relationship," if women continue to wear dresses.)

For me, dresses already represented power. Anyone who was lucky enough to read one of my earlier posts knows that almost all of my pre-school wisdom came from women. Now that I think of it, what little discipline I required did too, mostly in the form of switches which I usually had the honor of picking out myself.

I can, then, skip "she wore a dress" in my Homeric cataloging of the teachers I would've seen on my first day.

I certainly remember their eyes, because that's where animals, young children and possibly everyone else look for signs of hospitality, care, authenticity, comfort or for the more menacing signs of anger, arrogance, detachment, dissembling, indifference, hostility, cold-heartedness. In so doing, of course we're not literally asking "Are you my mother?" But we do want to know "Do you like me? Will I be safe with you? Is this going to be okay?"

All but one of those teachers wore glasses, and the one who didn't spoke with eyes closed, lids fluttering and quaking like aspen leaves in the wind. When her eyes did appear, they were looking upward or off to the side. Another had fashionable ornate horn-rimmed glasses on a face that was on its way to being lovely but whose features were somewhere halted and pinched by life's rigors.

Another, an old maid (see below), had heavily magnified bifocals resting on her droopy hound-dog face. Another, who secretly smoked and therefore smelled of Avon Smoker's Toothpaste, had half-glasses, but what really caught my eye was the delicate little chain attached to them -- it gave me my first tiny desire to be a teacher, to have an excuse to wear something that combined such beauty and utility. It would be another 18 years before I felt any further attraction toward the profession. Why would I? I was a just a boy and had every intention of growing up to be a man, and teachers were women -- which I think I have established.

Another, the 6th -grade teacher and therefore the Queen Bee of the bunch, wore frameless Coke-bottle glasses. She also had eyes in the back of her head and was a thick, solid woman with a deep booming voice and always had within easy reach what appeared to be a sawed-off boat paddle used to encourage us to behave. Also, if you had the hiccups, she'd dare you to do it while staring into her eyes, and the hiccups would promptly disappear. She scared the crap out of us.

(When any of these bespectacled teachers removed their glasses to clean them, slipping them partway into their mouth, huffing on them, then wiping off the fog with the hem of their dresses, they immediately morphed into other faces altogether, beady-eyed and ridiculous, and we couldn't wait for them to slide those babies back over their eyes.)

And then there was my own first-grade teacher, Miz Audrey, into whose classroom I'd be walking (women pushing me from behind) later that very morning. I don't know what we did on that apocalyptic day, but I know what I've learned so far from Miz Audrey. Some of it came to me in 1956; perhaps the most important part wasn't revealed to me till 1985; more of it came two years ago. It probably won't stop. (As a wonderful young man reminded me recently, a teacher's legacy, though it may feel small and unappreciated, actually grows daily.)

Some of what follows is excerpted from a previously published piece, so please don't share it with lawyers in case I've unknowingly violated some obscure copyright law:

Miz Audrey had taught my mom and my sister Martha, and I had heard some strange stories about her. And she certainly was strange. She had a big voice that broke all the time, broke all over everywhere. When she sang, "Did You Ever See a Lassie?" her voice rolled and broke all down the hall, in and out of second and third grade, to fourth, fifth and finally sixth, then down through the principal's office, escaping at last out the open doors into the clean, quiet north Florida air.

Her body was long and crooked, and she had long fingers and long thumbs. Her eyes, behind black horn-rimmed glasses, shot out in opposite directions, so that when you thought she was looking at Danny, she was actually looking at you. A stern woman and a realist, she wouldn't let us color our apples blue and she forced us to stay in the lines and sometimes she lost her temper and grabbed us and shook us. Her hands were cool and damp, and by the afternoon her breath smelled like the whole day mixed together.

One day Miz Audrey surprised me by getting us all in a circle, as if we were going to read, then, instead, teaching us how to blow and de-boogerize our noses in a thorough but tasteful way. She handed out tissues, then had us follow her step-by-step directions while she checked and corrected our technique. No more using the back of our hand or our sleeve as snot-wipers! No more using our thumbs to go trophy digging for today's Big Booger!

Our parents and/or our siblings had warned us about her last-day-of-school ritual, so we weren't surprised, when that long-awaited day finally arrived, that she stood at the door of the classroom, blocking our exit when the last bell rang. No one got out without a kiss. The girls didn't try to escape her big, clutching hands, gladly receiving her kiss and crying along with her. But the boys always tried to get out of the room and into the summer without Miz Audrey touching them. Some tried to climb out the windows. Others tried to squeeze through the narrow door while she was kissing someone else.

But no one escaped. Miz Audrey pulled us to her, kissed us on the cheek and neck, tried to hold onto us forever in that flickering moment, until we scrambled out the door, squirming, kicking, giggling and shouting, and finally wiping her lipstick and her tears from our cheeks.

In 30 years of teaching, her heart would not callous. Students kept finding soft places to embed themselves there for the nine months of the school year before they ripped themselves free. Time and custom and habit and routine could not lessen Miz Audrey's joy, could not cushion her sorrow.

She was a farmer's wife, and there was much for her to do in the summer. Hungry men and animals had to be fed. Gardens had to be tended. Gates had to be opened and shut for men coming through with tractors and trucks. Cakes had to be baked for weddings and funerals.

Having finished my own 30-plus years of teaching, I now must believe that true time began for Miz Audrey, every year, all over again, on a nervous Monday morning, when she stood at her classroom door and watched, smiling, as those little people filed into her life: fresh little faces, being born into something completely new, little bodies in first-day clothes, entrusting themselves to this new mother, long and crooked, with crazy eyes and a cracking voice: Miz Audrey.
Miz Audrey, we love you still.

Miz Audrey's lessons came to me in my kairos, in the times when circumstances made them visible and relevant. She taught me to read, write, add, subtract, blow my nose; she taught me that teachers have bad days and grow weary and impatient and that I need not take that personally -- that it was okay and perhaps inevitable that even a Fairy Godmother would turn on you occasionally; and, without ever saying a word about teaching, she taught me how much I would love and miss my students, and how full and rewarding they would make my life.

Old maid: For young women lucky enough to have been brought up in the post E.R.A. campaigns of the 1970s, "old maid" was a derogatory but openly used term for a woman who couldn't land a husband and therefore was most often dependent on relatives to provide room and board. There was a ton of failure and judgment and pity embedded in those two words. Thank one of those wild '70s women today for helping make that term one that few of my 21st-century students had ever heard.


  1. What wonderful memories your narrative elicits. I lived those days with you although my memories are certainly not that vivid. Being the social butterfly that I am, I was busily claiming boyfriends, comparing ponytails, and making new 'best' friends.

  2. Thank you, Judi! And we'll get to those ponytails eventually.