Thursday, August 20, 2015

Mrs. Poindexter and the Yearn to Learn

My second-grade teacher wore sweaters like these.

After my first-grade teacher Miz Audrey, I can recall few occasions throughout the rest of my elementary-school career that I would consider pivotal moments. Surely the events of those five years contributed heavily in some way to making me who I am today, whoever that is, but most of them are inaccessible to my memory.

I do remember that the third-grade teacher with the delicate glasses chain and the Avon Smokers Toothpaste made me want to smoke so I could smell like her. 

Any time she leaned over my shoulder to make some little correction in my cursive technique, and I caught a whiff of that toothpaste, I briefly imagined her living a double life: A Clark-Kentish schoolmarm by day, but by night a brazen dame with her bare feet on a coffee table, blowing her Salem cigarette smoke out the open window of her farmhouse, the tell-tale gray-and-white tube of Avon Smokers Toothpaste within reach in the event of unexpected visitors.

This film noir fantasy made my clumsy reshaping of the bizarre capital "Q" much more interesting. It was a badass smell, and I mean that in a good way.

Otherwise, two other teachers stand out, one for making me want to excel, one for changing my life. I'll save the latter for a future post.

My first day of second grade, I discovered there was a new teacher in town: Mrs. Poindexter. In the time it took me to get from the classroom door to my desk, I fell deeply in love with her, which really means she cast a spell on me. Which probably means she caused me to open Dorothy's door: One second I'm in black and white (more on that later!) Pinetta, Florida; the next I'm in the Technicolored Land of Enchantment. Which means, more accurately, her extraordinary beauty transfigured the landscape.

My sister Martha never told me teachers could be beautiful, so I didn't know what to do with that image.

Here are some things that came to mind, probably shortly after I reached my desk on the first day: Don't ever disappoint this woman. Don't ever do anything that would cause her to scold you. Try to win her praise. Try to make her like you. Try to be her favorite.

I'm pretty sure those very thoughts were racing through the minds of the 10 other boys in the room.

Fashion first, then teaching: I'm no Tim Gunn, but my memory suggests that whatever ensemble Mrs. Poindexter put together, she made it work. Sure, she modeled a stable of lovely dresses, but the image she imprinted most on my psyche was a sweater-and-skirt outfit. 

The sweaters must have been cotton (this was Florida), so they weren't bulky, didn't hide a person's contours. Made them stand out, in fact. She wore both short-sleeved and long-sleeved sweaters. Short or long, they were equally effective at keeping my attention focused solely on the front of the classroom or wherever Mrs. Poindexter was at any given time.

Mrs. Poindexter, my second-grade teacher. Just kidding!
You couldn't tell by looking at her, but she was also left handed and made her check marks backwards. This seemed to intrigue my left-handed dad, and he became eager to have a conference with her.

About her teaching: She seemed genuinely happy to be there, every day, happy to see us, all good cheer and encouragement and twinkling blue eyes -- none of this "don't smile till Thanksgiving" horse crap.

Either I really did turn out to be her favorite student or she made everyone feel that way. I would guess the latter. Still, she ruffled my hair, she patted my back, she said, "You can do this! Good job, Roy. Hey, boys and girls! Look how cool Roy's map of Antarctica is! Let's give him a big hand!"

Back then, our grades were E (Excellent), S (Satisfactory), N (Needs Improvement) and U (Unsatisfactory). I think there was also an I (Improving). Well, I wanted only E's, and that's about all I got. Plus, for behavioral issues, we got check pluses, checks, and check minuses. All left-handed check pluses for me!

The climax of the Poindexter era came when she cast me as a bunny in a school play. I don't remember what the play was about, only that it included a bunny. I don't think it was an Easter play. 

All I remember is that, against my protests due to a practically terminal case of shyness, Mrs. Poindexter picked me to be the bunny and, I think, she even made the bunny costume, including a terrific cotton tail. She encouraged and praised me throughout rehearsals, so that I actually started looking forward to Opening Night (i.e., the afternoon we performed it).

On the big day, she gave me a much cherished back pat that signaled "enter stage left," and I hopped to center stage with all the confidence and bravado of Bugs Bunny scamming Elmer Fudd. Bashful as I was, I did not notice the crowd. I noticed Mrs. Poindexter cheering me from the wings, and I was not afraid. Once my performance was complete (I don't think I had any lines), she met me with a hug. I was convinced that I was the star of the show and, more importantly, Mrs. Poindexter's favorite student.

Because I was a 7-year-old boy, planning to grow up to be a man, I still saw no trace of teaching in my future. After my extraordinary turn as a bunny, however, I was entertaining the possibility of becoming an actor, someone along the lines of Gregory Peck or Gary Cooper or Charlton Heston. But after a series of inexplicable twists of fate turned me into a teacher, maybe I carried with me, unconsciously and completely beneath my level of perception, some Poindexterisms:

Show up every day as if you're attending a party. Be happy to see the young people who make your job possible. When you push a student to grow and to take risks, be his safety net. Reward the kid who does her best. Make every student feel like he's your favorite. Encourage all of them as they try to get better. Be sure they know you're applauding from the wings. Be stunningly beautiful. (Apparently, some success is possible without that last one.)
Gary Cooper chewing gum in class

Could Mrs. Poindexter possibly have had anything to do with my efforts to do all the wonderful things she did? Doesn't seem likely. As far as I can tell, I did them because I didn't know any other way to conduct myself in front of a captive audience.

Most of the time, I didn't choose to be funny and cheerful (I'm not even a cheerful person -- I'm anxious. gloomy and cynical, a provider of free room and board to a mostly mean-spirited pandemonius interior monologue), that's just who I became when I taught. I was being honest. More teachers should probably try that. 
Gregory Peck

Maybe Mrs. Poindexter, too, was a closet crab, cursing some of us little bastards (not me!) under her breath as she trudged out to her red-and-white 6-cylinder Chevy Bel-Air after school. 

It's fun for me to imagine that. Still, 20 years would pass before Professor Eugene Crook at FSU would model that same joyful pedagogy, differing only in that he amped it up to ecstasy, maybe even mania. Also, he never wore those sweaters.

Anyway. About 10 years after second grade, I saw Mrs. Poindexter again. You'd think I would've greeted her in a mature manner and told her how much her kindness meant to me, and how rare it was. You'd be wrong. 

I was in a 7-11 in Monticello, Florida, and I saw her get out of her car and walk inside. For a brief moment, whatever remained of the shy 7-year-old inside me shot an arrow from a Valentine's-Day-card Cupid right at her lovely heart, but the thing immediately encountered hormonal turbulence and never found its target. 

Unable to sort through the confusing combination of  present and past emotions and the memories her beauty evoked, I did the only sensible thing I could think of: I ducked into the beer cooler and stared at her through six-packs of Schlitz bottles.

Having made her purchase -- two packs of Wrigley's Spearmint gum -- she abruptly left. I swallowed hard at my missed opportunity, and walked out of the cooler. My glasses immediately fogged up, but I'm pretty sure they were gonna fog up even if I hadn't gone in there.

By now, of course, my bunny suit has no doubt turned to ashes, and my teen-aged awkwardness is almost gone. Mrs. Poindexter must be a very old woman, maybe even growing lonesome and waiting for someone to say "hello in there." But I don't think so.

Her eyes surely still twinkle with love and hope, and she greets each new aching uncertain day with good cheer.

But just in case: Hello in there, Mrs. Poindexter. I love you.

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