I had a series of extraordinary high school A.P/Honors English teachers. All women. Mrs. Church in 9th grade, with her gray ponytail and expansive mind, encouraged us to think broadly. She seemed like she could tackle anything. It's so long ago I can't remember what we read, but I remember her smile, her excitement, and her love of literature.
Alice Brice, and former Vogue model who I had as a sophomore and junior, would challenge us as soon as the bell rang to open our books to a particular poem, and write for the period about what the author was trying to say and how s/he said it. I read some great poems my sophomore year. She had a wonderful sardonic sense of humor. She told us she didn't particularly like young kids, and didn't like college students, either, just smart high-schoolers. I found out later she was one of the four fellows from our school had who had won national fellowships to intensively study their field over a summer at any University. She studied poetry at Harvard. Having four from one school was some kind of record. At a public school in New Mexico. Looking back, I can see how fortunate we were.
The first half of the year and when Brice was out, I had Ms. Piper, who smoked outside her classroom, her black hair shellacked into a permanent Jackie Kennedy, clad in impeccable houndstooth skirt suits. She intimidated. When we saw Piper, we knew it was essay day.
I was in in A.P. or "Honors" English. Through my colleagues on the speech team, I knew what my contemporaries were studying. While we were assigned to write an essay about MacBeth in terms of tragic form, character or rhythm, the "Enriched" class was drawing pictures of quotes from the play. The Regular classes were listening to "Romeo and Juliet" on record.
Even though I was a solid A/B student in English, Brice suggested that my junior be spent in her "Enriched" class to work on grammar, as my sentence structure needed work. That's all changed. (pause for laugh)
I spent my junior year in Brice's class, goofing off with my friend Dan, learning how to diagram sentences, and sitting behind the impossible preppy and handsome Hal Richardson, who played tennis. Of course he did.
I almost flunked out of Enriched English. I have a bad habit that when I'm not challenged I stop working hard. Or maybe I just don't like to study. I was a straight A student in French, but the one test I studied hard for I got a C. I vowed to not study again. Anyhow, I was almost getting a D in English, which was unfathomable. In English, my favorite subject. By some thankful stroke of luck, the final was in spelling, which has never been a challenge. I pulled my grade up to an 81, and Brice recommended I be put back in Honors.
Senior year, I had to catch up with all my peers, who had spent the last year reading Moby Dick along with some other choice classes taught by a guy they all loved. In 12th grade A.P. with Meredith Kopald, we dissected "Cry, The Beloved Country," "Hamlet," "The SOund and The Fury" among others. She even had us over to her house for an afternoon weekend party - impossibly adult.
Meanwhile, I developed one of my worst habits. I got an A on a paper I wrote on "Anna Karenina" with my independent study group, though I hadn't finished the book. I got the highest marks awarded on the A.P. exam writing about the Quentin section of "The Sound and The Fury," even though I had not finished reading the book. I'm convinced no one understands that section, so even writing about it gives you points. A couple of years later, in college, I got an A on a paper on "Women in Love" from a visiting Lawrence scholar even though I had only read the first third, skimming the rest for quotes that backed up my thesis. Not a great habit to start. I believe it's colloquially called "bullshitting." I suppose that's why I loved the poetry essays. You can read the whole thing, more than once if you need, and really take the time to explore. I do finish books, though, even though sometimes it takes me a year.
Brice passed away in a car crash with her best friend, the absolute favorite teacher of many friends of mine at another high school, on a remote road in New Mexico. They were both teaching at the same school at the time. I'll never forget her broad smile, her brain, her sarcasm, and her love of what she did. I'd always been amazed that she'd been a model and given it up to teach English in Albuquerque. I don't know where the other teachers who taught me such an appreciation of learning and literature are. There are so many. I had an array of extraordinary teachers in high school in French, History, Chemistry, Drama, Chorus, Speech. Each could warrant an essay. If I ventured into my college years I'd have to write countless pages.
I think of this now, and how good it is to have a teacher; how good it is to let yourself be taught. It's easy to forget that when you get a little older. I will always remember that desk, and the moss green book in which I read "Out, Out -" and "Dulce Et Decorum Est" for the first time. And the poem below, one of my favorites. Since I've been thinking about distance and perspective the last few days, this poem came to mind. I thank all of these teachers that it did.
Page 79. What is this poem saying and how does it say it?
Musee des Beaux Arts
W. H. Auden
About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.