Looking back, it seems all we did was study for Ma’am’s tests, diagram her impossibly complex sentences and read, read, read.
“She’s a very good teacher, you know,” my mother said.
“Why? Because she’s so hard?”
“Partly. You should thank her.”
“That’ll be the day.”
Friends and I obsessed over our teacher at sleepovers, on the school bus, at Plitman’s Deli. Not because she was young, pretty, fun and friendly. She wasn’t.
In truth, she was curt and hardnosed and wore a perpetual frown, fuddy-duddy dresses and those bleak black shoes that made a scary noise when she walked the aisles between our desks.
Mom’s teacher-friend heard somewhere that Ma’am was married once but something happened. I asked what and was told to mind my own business about such things.
Right. It triggered not-so-nice guesswork and gossip about her. We were eighth-graders, after all.
She demanded we address her as “Ma’am,” not Miss or Mrs. so-and-so. So even beyond the classroom she was “Ma’am” to us:
“What’d you get on Ma’am’s test?”
“Rose and her mom saw Ma’am riding a bike!”
“Ma’am recited all of ‘Annabel Lee’ without stopping. How does she do that?”
In fact, Ma’am could recite every poem she had us “dissect.” When r-sounds appeared, she’d trill them theatrically — especially the alliterative ones. We’d roll our eyes and stifle our giggles. When she caught us in the act, she’d stop and stare with merciless tight lips for a 10 count at least. But her silent browbeatings were worth it. No one could trill their r’s like Ma’am.
On the other hand, once she recited “To an Athlete Dying Young” in a way that brought at least one hotshot class jock near to tears. Another time Ma’am took us to the Guthrie Theater to see “The Glass Menagerie.” She made a seating chart. I sat next to Martha, who cried during the last scene. Ma’am put her arm around Martha. I couldn’t believe it.
We thought Ma’am was probably the planet’s smartest person. It seemed she’d read every novel, poem and play. Plus, she knew history, science, even math. She quoted from the Bible. She lectured without notes. She didn’t hem and haw. She didn’t make mistakes.
Ma’am demanded succinctness. Once, trying to ingratiate myself to her, I said, “Boy, I studied really hard for this test, Ma’am.” All that did was beget one of her no-nonsense mini-tutorials:
“Boy” is meaningless.
“Really” is unnecessary to your point.
Now, what did you do?
I studied hard for this test, Ma’am.
Ma’am was a notoriously hard grader. An A was a long shot. Legend had it a kid hyperventilated and wound up in the nurse’s office after Ma’am gave him an “A+/Superior work.”
Here’s a sampling of grades Ma’am gave me on homework hoarded by my mother, stashed in a steamer trunk I inherited: “B/Do you intend to ever use their and there correctly?” (Know Your Homonyms worksheet); “C-/See me after class. Bring this with you.” (“A Day in the Live [sic]of a [sic] Orangutane [sic]”).
To say Ma’am was demanding understates it. On Recitation Friday, you’d better stand straight beside your desk, “hands out of your pockets,” and recite your assigned poem mistake-free or “Do it again.” Or again. (It took me several stabs at “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” to satisfy her.)
Was your homework sloppy, late, presumed lost or, heaven help you, copied? Did you incorrectly diagram “Mary delivered the flower bouquet to her ailing grandmother on a rainy day”?
“Be here at 3:30. Make arrangements,” she’d say.
One morning, Ma’am picked me to read aloud from Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations.” Reading aloud at Ma’am’s lectern was a huge deal to us, like she’d granted entrée into her sacrosanct space.
Imagine an eighth-grade boy trying his damnedest to impress his teacher by mimicking the acerbic voice of Miss Havisham (remember her?), the novel’s vengeful, jilted spinster:
“On this day of the year, long before you were born, this heap of decay, … was brought here. It and I have worn away together. The mice have gnawed at it, and sharper teeth than teeth of mice have gnawed at me. … When the ruin is complete, … and when they lay me dead, in my bride’s dress on the bride’s table — which shall be done, and which will be the finished curse upon him — so much the better if it is done on this day!”
I must have nailed it. Otherwise, I never would have said, with such sophomoric chutzpah, “You remind me of Miss Havisham, Ma’am.” While my classmates sat stone cold silent, I remember trying to disguise my nasty slip-of-the-tongue with a fake guffaw.
My plan was to apologize to Ma’am after class, accept a consequence (detention? some sort of reflective composition? our vice-principal’s paddle?) and that would be that. It didn’t turn out that way. My punishment was far worse. Ma’am took me into the dusty walk-in book room and said, “Your remark about me was cruel. I thought you were a nice young man. But I was wrong.”
We still talk about Ma’am. Her r-trillings. Those shoes. How we feared her and revered her.
What a brilliant teacher she was.
But I never thanked her. Mom was right, I should have.
Dick Schwartz lives in Minneapolis.