My second grade teacher was a hateful, abusive old maid, like you read about. Don’t just ask me: thirty years down the road I met a colleague of hers in the local pool locker room, found out where she taught and mentioned the name. “Oh God!” said my new acquaintance. “She just retired! We threw a huge party because we were so glad to see her go!”
She was derisive, waspish and condescending, and my most vivid memory of her involves her telling me, after I had split my knee open on the asphalt playground, not to use all the classroom’s raspy paper towels sopping the blood up. Her teaching specialties were math and the Spanish language; to this day I cannot look at a check register or financial statement without blank-minded revulsion, and only my recent acquaintanceship with Azahar has brought about occasions when I could read or hear the Spanish language without violent loathing.
But she set an agenda of reading fiction aloud at the end of the school day, and during the year I spent there, she read us “The Princess and the Goblin.” If you haven’t ever run across it, give yourself the pleasure. George MacDonald was an author with a moral agenda, Christian in inflection but, I think, universal in its embrace of common decency, reflectiveness, and sincerity. Along the way, he dropped some interesting perspectives of his own.
“Please, I want to ask you one question more,” said Irene. “Is it because you have your crown on that you look so young?”
“No, child,” answered her grandmother. “It is because I felt so young this evening, that I put my crown on. And I thought you would like to see your old grandmother in her best.”
“Why do you call yourself old? You’re not old, grandmother.”
“I am very old indeed. It is so silly of people — I don’t mean you, for you are such a tiny, and could not know better — but it is so silly of people to fancy that old age means crookedness and witheredness and feebleness and sticks and spectacles and rheumatism and forgetfulness! It is so silly. Old age has nothing whatever to do with all that. The right old age means strength and beauty and mirth and courage and clear eyes and strong painless limbs. I am older than you are able to think…”
Six years old, I took the princess’s great-great-grandmother deeply to heart. She had a lamp like a full moon that could be seen through stone walls when she chose; a spinning wheel; a bath infinitely deep and full of stars, and a hearthfire of burning roses. I met her again, though not till much later. But I had already embraced her philosophy.
It was worth the price of the math and Spanish.