Wednesday's Assignment from Mama's Losin' It is to write of an encounter with a former teacher. I have exactly the person in mind.
My sophmore year in high school, I had an English teacher who hated me. I was never really sure why she did not like me. I thought I was pretty cute and likable. I worked really hard in school. I came to class, I studied hard, I tried not only to grasp the knowledge but to apply it.
I went to a private all girl's school. I hated it. I wanted nothing more than to just go back to public school where the rest of my friends went, but my parents would not hear of it. I had a full scholarship to this school and they insisted that I take advantage of the opportunity. (they were quirky like that) In retrospect, I guess I could have tried a little less in my academic endeavors and that may have taken care of the whole "but you have a scholarship" dilemma, but it never crossed my mind.
Many of the girls who went to the school had summer cottages in the town where I lived. Many of the girls in the school looked down on me because I lived year round in the summer cottage town. My family did not have a regular home, a summer cottage, and a ski cabin. We had one house. It almost seemed to me that my English teacher saw me in the same light as the summer cottage crowd.
Often in class, she would suggest engaging our families in a discussion of classic literature around the dinner table. I'm sure she meant for this to be a positive, enlightening experience. However, my family did not discuss Anna Karenina or Great Expectations at dinner. We discussed the Red Sox. Charles Dickens would not stand a chance.
Often in class, she would ask students to share with one another the content of those dinner discussions. Some students would share their mother's point of view as she wrote in her term paper at Wellsley. Other students, like me, looked down at their desks and tried to disappear. And always -- ALWAYS -- she would call on me.
"What did your family think of this novel?" she'd say.
"Um, I don't know" I'd stammer. "We didn't talk about it."
I still remember the way she'd look down her nose at me. Through those black rimmed half glasses. (She always wore black rimmed glasses, black ribbed turtle neck sweaters over skinny black pants and black boots) "Well, I guess some people think they don't have to pay attention to assignments."
In those moments, I'd actually feel ashamed of my family! Nobody in my family had gone to college! Nobody wrote term papers about t.s .elliot! Nobody cared to compare and contrast Much Ado About Nothing and Othello! I'd sit in class and seethe, thinking that this was her intent all along, to make me feel like I was a little less than her.
One day, during a discussion of A Farewell to Arms, we were talking about somebody's dad's opinion of Hemingway as the greatest American writer and the novel as a classic love story. As usual, she asked me to weigh in on it.
"I don't think they were in love at all," I said. "I think the characters were a couple of alcoholics who were afraid of being alone. So they just hung on each other and drank and said 'I love you, I love you, I love you' so they wouldn't have to be alone."
She looked down through her glasses at me. "Obviously, somebody has not been paying attention in class all year. I try to teach you girls how to read great literature and appreciate great writers. Hemingway HAS been referred to as the greatest American writer of all time by many scholars. You would know that if you cared to do the work in this class."
"But I did read the book," I argued back to her. "I just don't think its a love story. I think its sad!"
After lecturing the class on how I didn't know the difference between a "book" and a "novel" she gave me an extra assignment to research Ernest Hemingway and write an essay on Hemingway as the greatest American author of all time.
Big mistake. BIG MISTAKE. Because in my research of the greatest American writer of all time, I learned a few things that she had neglected to mention in class. Like how he was a raging alcoholic. How he had a series of failed relationships including one with his nurse during World War I. How he was referred to as a member of "the Lost Generation" by Ezra Pound. How he was thought to have suffered from bipolar disorder and ended his life by committing suicide.
I did HER assignment. However, I wrote MY essay. Somehow in between the lines of the paper, I managed to suggest that somebody ELSE hadn't been doing her assignments. (seriously ---who the hell teaches Hemingway and neglects to mention the Lost Generation and the alcoholism?) I managed reference my ass off about his dark period in which he wrote this novel. I managed to turn that paper in, feeling like she was a little less than me.
(I still have that essay tucked away in a hope chest. I might dig it out this weekend and read it again. Just because.)