By Bob McCrillis
As befits the original and only building of the Academy – the private school serving as my home town’s public high school, the Main Building had its own atmosphere. Walking through the doors, you were met with the smell of generations of chalk dust and hormones, of frustration and enlightenment in keeping with nearly a hundred years of serving teenagers. During the baby boom, however, Main’s three uncompromising brick stories were joined by several undistinguished and sterile modern structures.
I expect that it will eventually be replaced by an insipid low-rise box with air conditioning. Its razing will undoubtedly be justified by claims of greater energy efficiency, better student experiences, and the inevitable invasion of computers. Tradition be damned!
When I attended, there were obvious paths worn into the hardwood floors by generations of students. Every night, the janitor waxed and buffed those floors, scenting the morning classes with the bees wax applied the night before.
Back then, the top floor, the domain of the English department, was mostly staffed by women who apparently came with the building. As a group, they were frighteningly well-educated and seemed to belong to a different species from us. Occasionally, one lamented the error of eliminating Greek as a parallel foundation with Latin for truly understanding English. All of my high school English instruction took place on that floor. Teachers’ directions whispered down the corridors and through time, having changed little from a hundred years ago, leaving verbal trail marks to guide the generations,“…now, class, conjugate the verb to be” and, “…what is Stephen Crane telling us?” And, of course, the dim mumblings of the poor students trying to answer.
I loved the timelessness of the building – knowing that we could be sitting at the same desks as our great-grandfathers – and wrestling with the same texts. Unfortunately, my love had more to do with the romance of an old building than a commitment to scholarship. It is no wonder that my slap-dash effort and impudent attitude led to frequent confrontations with the deities of the top floor – most often with Mrs. Hastings.
“Mr. Meecham, would you be so kind as to come up front and read your…essay?… on the book Way of a Wanton by Richard S. Prather?”
I was hoping that the glint in her eye was a mischievous twinkle, not the glare of a vengeful goddess. “Since it’s a little outside our normal reading list, you might want to provide your classmates with some background first. Tell us just who this Mr. Prather is… his claim to fame…rank in literature?”
Oh my God! She was actually going to make me read what I had written.
The assignment had been to analyze the motivations and internal conflicts of the main characters in a book of our choosing. The book I chose was a pulp detective story, full of violence and as much sex and foul language as could be printed in books sold over the counter. Its cover was graced by a voluptuous woman in a slinky evening dress looking back over her shoulder at the reader. She would have been right at home on the nose of a B-17 heading for Nazi Germany. In addition to being my most recent reading, I had picked it, as much as anything, to tweak Mrs. Hastings. After all, she did say a book of our own choosing.
Judith Carrington had already bored us with ten minutes on Uncle Tom’s Cabin. “…Topsy had internalized the systemic racism that existed alongside the overt subjugation evident in the slave-holding South…” And on and on.
Judith was smart and her liberal sympathies fueled a powerful flame of commitment to the Civil Rights struggle. It wouldn’t have hurt me to listen – except that the whole issue seemed irrelevant. After all, there were no imported minorities in town – we were lily-white and forced to discriminate against each other. Hell, until I left grammar school, I thought Jews were an extinct race, like Abyssinians or Sumerians.
Next up had been Ramona Latham who talked about the inner struggles of Tess D’Urbervilles while the struggle inside of Ramona’s blouse kept me interested. Then Ronny Jacobs who probably hadn’t even completed reading the Cliff Notes – there was some doubt in my mind if he could read at all – stuttered and stammered describing the horrors witnessed by Gordon Pym in Edgar Allen Poe’s novel recording Pym’s fictional journey. Shifting from foot-to-foot, he concluded that the book wasn’t very realistic.
Then Mrs. Hastings had called on me.
“Ah, are you sure you want me to read?” I panicked because the character on whom I’d lavished my lascivious attention was a “chesty Polish girl, named Wanda…with legs up to her neck” I had attributed to her deep internal conflicts between her religious upbringing and her line of work – prostitution.
“Yes, Mr. Meecham, I think we all would benefit from your insights.”
“The Way of a Wanton, by Richard S. Prather” I began. I had started the piece with a quote from the book that would probably get me expelled, “…she was a big girl, almost six feet in a short skirt that emphasized the swing of her hips and long silk-clad legs. A tight sweater, heavy blonde mane, red lips and nails like daggers completed her work clothes.”
The class tittered, the girls covering their mouths and the boys grinning at each other. I could feel the heat of terminal embarrassment rising in my face. I hesitated, hoping that Mrs. Hastings would rescue me.
“Mr. Meecham,” she said….
Thank God, she’s going to grant my prayer.
“As I said earlier, I think it would be well for you to tell us a little about the narrator before you continue.”
“The, ah, narrator?”
“Yes, who said she was a big girl with swinging hips et cetera? The book is written in the first person, is it not?”
“I’ll make it easier. The story is told from a particular point of view. Whose?”
“The detective, Shell Scott,” I answer.
“Tell us about Mr. Scott. His background, his goals, his…desires?”
“He’s a private detective that …”
“He’s a private detective who does something.”
Sweat dripped down my forehead forcing me to blink and wipe my stinging eyes. “The detective, Shell Scott helps people in trouble who can’t get help from the police. He drinks and often finds himself involved with beautiful women.”
Mrs. Hasting grilled me in front of the class for twenty minutes eliciting laughter, embarrassment, and shock from the class until the bell finally released me.
As I scurried my way out the door, she handed me my paper with an “A” on it. “Good writing.” Looking straight into my eyes, she continued, “Don’t do it again.”
Those were the days when teachers really were grossly underpaid and, in New England, subject to a strict code of conduct enforced by an army of peeping busybodies. Mrs. Hastings had to have a true calling to put up with it – and us. She was not young, was new in our school, and was rumored to be divorced. At least, there was no father at home for her daughter who was in class with us.
I was the indulged first-born son in my family. We didn’t have much, but whatever we did have, I always got more than my sisters. Thoughtlessly accepting my privileged position, I drifted through life. I was, after all, special. School came easily. I was always in the top group, always got the best grades, always smiled upon by teachers. I took it as my due.
Until Mrs. Hastings punctured my self-important balloon.
After The Way of a Wanton massacre, give her credit for bravery because she took me on as a project. She pushed and pushed to get me to extend myself. “What did you really see? Show me the quote that supports your statement. You’re reading Pablum – challenge yourself.” Her hectoring was never-ending but so subtly done that the rest of the class never saw it.
I was so desperate that I even considered asking her tall, quiet, cat-eyed daughter out on a date figuring that she might put in a good word for me. Of course, my track record with girls suggested that – even if she agreed to go out with me – her good judgment might later encourage her toward increasing my punishment rather than reducing it. I discarded the date strategy as too risky.
So it continued for two years, both junior and senior English. I rarely escaped from her class without an extra assignment or a piece from a literary journal. When other kids asked me to intercede with Mrs. Hastings for them, I really started to worry that I was considered “teacher’s pet.” But I kept doing the assignments and reading the articles anyway.
She was the advisor for the school’s student correspondent to the local newspaper – namely, me – and required a weekly Friday afternoon review of what I was working on for my monthly story. One time my offering was particularly thin, consisting primarily of sports scores.
“Aren’t you ashamed of this,” she chastised waving my two dog-eared pages. “It’s the work – or non-work – of an exceptionally lazy young man who takes nothing very seriously.”
I hung my head, waiting for her to be done.
“Don’t you realize that even something as trivial as this is read by people? You have readers! You owe them more effort than you’re putting in.”
“If you want me to quit, I will,” I mumbled. “Didn’t want the job anyway.”
“Oh, no, you don’t get to quit, Mr. Meecham. You have the ability and you owe it to yourself to use it. Laziness is a betrayal of your potential.”
“Why are you doing this to me?” I whined.
“By that, I assume you mean encouraging you to actually work. My answer is that I am not doing anything to you – I am doing it for you.”
“Well, what do you want?”
“If you must have specific assignments, I’ll give you one. By next Friday, bring me five hundred words on the student viewpoint on the space race – especially from the standpoint of competing resources.”
I wasn’t completely sure what she meant by “competing resources” but I would have nodded yes to anything to get out of that room. I gathered up my books and headed for the door.
Her voice stopped me before I managed my escape.
“Remember, eight o’clock tomorrow in Mrs. Silver’s room,” she said.
“Huh?” Had she slipped yet another assignment onto my list while I wasn’t paying attention?
“Tomorrow morning, Mr. Meecham. Certainly you remember The National Merit test? I’m proctoring, but it’s in Mrs. Silver’s room. It’s a little larger than this one.”
“Um…what test is that?”
“Are you telling me that you aren’t signed up for the test?” If anything, she was more exasperated with me than when she carved up my newspaper story. She dug in her desk drawer, pulled out some papers, and slapped the package down in front of me. “Fill that out. As proctor I can register you late.”
She watched while I filled out the forms, then reviewed them to be sure I’d done it correctly. “Very well, be in Mrs. Silver’s room at eight with several number two pencils and fifteen dollars.”
“Ah, fifteen dollars? I don’t know if…”
“Be there at eight.”
Of course I showed up … without the money. The Old Man didn’t get home with his pay until really late, and I was afraid to wake him before I left for school. My mother didn’t have fifteen dollars, “I have to get something for lunch today with the little bit I have,” Ma said. “Can’t you owe them?”
At ten minutes to eight, we were all lined up to get our test booklets from Mrs. Hastings. I managed to be at the end of the line. Each kid handed her fifteen dollars – mostly in cash – which she deposited in an official-looking envelope on her desk. “At least one desk between each of you in each direction,” she instructed, then turned to me. “Mr. Meecham, you made it. I’m glad to see you!”
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Hastings, I don’t have the money. My father got home late and…”
Her eyes narrowed. “Oh,” she said and, after a brief hesitation, brusquely checked off my name and handed me my booklet. “Find a seat.”
Since the only desks available were in the first row. I had an excellent vantage point to watch her dig into her purse and put money into the envelope.
It took three days of whining at home for me to get the money, but on Wednesday, I was able to meet my obligation to my teacher. That lessened the humiliation a little.
About a month later, Mrs. Hastings strolled into study hall and dropped an envelope on my desk. “Looks like you’ll have your choice of colleges, Patrick,” she smiled. “Good work.”
Everyone watched while I opened the envelope. My test results were the third highest in the state. Colleges from across the country recruited me and offered financial aid packages that made it possible for me to attend.
I did attend college on an almost free ride, wasted much of the opportunity, and followed my father and grandfather into the Marine Corps, eventually to Viet Nam. It wasn’t until I was back in the world that I realized that my degree, however reluctantly obtained or deserved, gave me choices that most of the guys didn’t have. All because of Mrs. Hastings.
I’m ashamed that I never had the good manners to thank her.
Bob McCrillis was born and raised in a small town in Maine. He and his wife Linda have four grown daughters and four grandsons. The couple now resides in Bucks County, Pennsylvania where they are both deeply involved in an organization that uses therapy dogs to help children cope with learning difficulties and emotional stress.