Early Influences

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.

 

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12 thoughts on “Early Influences

  1. This piece is a tingling, warm bath, lit by moonlight, though there is no window in the room, with the dizzyingly soporific fragrance of roses and full of the waters of forgiveness.

    Could spoil everything.

  2. Every crone has a silver lining. [It’s a shame from my point of view that she didn’t take part in team teaching because ‘every crowd has a silver lining’ would work much better ….. obviously – tee hee]

  3. My sternest teacher, the most demanding, compelled most of us, if only to survive his course, to develop a work method. At the time we all hated him. Later on, I have, inwardly, thanked him many times but never had an occasion to tell him before he died some 20 years ago.

    • I’ve wondered more than once if the woman had any idea what she was reading to us. Sometimes I think she simply selected the books because they were supposed to be “edifying.” Like many good children’s books, they presented a model of standing up for truth even when browbeaten by bossy grownups (of which she was a representative type) and of doing things one had been warned against because something important was at stake. All good stories for the young contain elements of subversion.

      Anything she set out to teach us with any energy, she taught me to hate, and she demonstrated to me daily that adults cared only about bossing and dominating, as if she never actually listened to what she was reading. Some people just do good by accident in the process of taking their revenge on the world. (It’s possible she didn’t like being around children any more than I do, and felt stuck with the job in a generation when women weren’t presented with many other ways to make a living.)

  4. I think your assessment of this woman is right; I had a few of those, one stands out even now for our battles over my left-handedness and her attempts to change that. She wasn’t a teacher out of love of teaching or love of children.

    As for the story, I’ll have to go check it out…love the quote about being old and your embracing of that. Strength and beauty and mirth… wonderful.

  5. I downloaded the book, and I just started into the work. I’m looking forward to it too.

    My wife, in her capacity as librarian, is reading a lot of children’s books lately. This is a lot out there.

  6. Ooh, I love the “bath infinitely deep and full of stars, and a hearthfire of burning roses.” I need to get me both of those.

    The nearest I’ve ever come is rosepetals in the bath and a fire with sparks. But I still have time, I’m not old enough yet maybe… 😉

  7. Much here, in this post, for all–the aspiring teacher, the young student, the old student, the student, the old.

    Most teachers have no idea how they are impacting their students, in ways positive and negative.

    As a young subversive and an old traditionalist, I thank you particularly for this message at this time in my life.

  8. Very compelling.

    We all had teachers that were abusive but in the end have given us something. My mathematics teacher, for example, whom I continued to see in my nightmares for decades, but who was at the same time an impressing example of Sicilian ….sternness, I lack words, something archaic, morally inflexible, venerable all at the same time, part of a world as it used to be, which all of us pupils could never forget.

    And, as for the goddess, you are a follower of Gerald Gardner by the way? Here there are so many women who have that same frame of mind but don’t even know it.

    • Actually I think Gerald Gardner was something of an old charlatan; he seems to have done a mash-up of a few esoteric traditions, though I am rather charmed by his his claim that English Wiccans did protective “workings” during World War II. Myself, I am simply captivated when old Goddesses appear subversively in art of all kinds.

      I went to a Wiccan equinox festival during one of my visits to Britain, which was held at a local village hall (looked like a small grade school) and resembled a science fiction convention. Lots of people selling herbal oils and macrame. The high point was a nutter called King Uther Arthur Pendragon, a onetime motorcyclist and environmental activist who spent his time getting arrested for civil disobedience in the cause of protecting trees and wildlife from being built over. He gave a talk on dealing with the police and courts when arrested, opened his fly to show us his pink prison underwear, and later got roaring drunk and called everyone a bunch of “pussies.” He was right.

      The only faintly mystical experience was a Spiral Dance during which we all hummed as we walked the spiral, making everyone a little giddy.

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