Sunday, December 23, 2007

eleanor

"The black stove, stoked with coal and firewood, glows like a lighted pumpkin. Eggbeaters whirl, spoons spin around in bowls of butter and sugar, vanilla sweetens the air, ginger spices it; melting, nose-tingling odors saturate the kitchen, suffuse the house, drift out to the world on puffs of chimney smoke.
- "A Christmas Memory" by Truman Capote

Photobucket

This is Miss Eleanor Johnson, my high school English teacher and faculty advisor to our yearbook staff. It's been 42 years since the last time I saw her toddling down the hallway with her distinctive gait in her sensible black shoes. Miss Johnson was only one of many teachers who would, in those days, be referred to as an "old maid."

You must understand, this was just before the women's liberation movement sparked alive and in Miss Johnson's day there were limited opportunities for unmarried women to make a living. They could be secretaries, shop clerks, nurse or teachers. That was about the extent of the choices.

Miss Johnson was one of those people who were well suited to their work, and she loved to teach. I often marveled at her sunny disposition and her ability to control large classrooms divided between serious punks and hopeless dorks. Somehow she managed to retain her enthusiasm after many years of teaching.

When I knew her she was quickly approaching retirement. I posed a particular problem in her classroom because I refused to look for deeper meanings in the books and stories we read. Others picked the tales apart like vultures cleaning week old carcasses.

"Suzanne, can you explain the significance of the dead birds in this story?" she asked.

"Well, Miss Johnson. Sometimes a dead bird is simply a dead bird." I replied in defiance.

She looked at me and winked. What a joy this woman was.

She taught me an important lesson one day when we were under a publishing deadline for the yearbook. We'd handed out a story assignment to one of the freshman volunteers. As we read his work we began to giggle at the horrible sentence structure. Miss Johnson bristled and turned to face us. I was surprised. It was the first time I'd ever seen her lose her cool.

"Please do not laugh at someone else's work." she said in a tense tone.

"He's made an honest effort and your task as an editor is to help him improve, not to laugh," she continued.

I was mortified. She was right and probably somewhere in the back of her mind she was saying, "I've read your work and you're hardly the person to criticize!" But of course being Miss Johnson she never said a word on that subject.

As I said, this was all 42 years ago and I'm sure Miss Johnson is gone for many years. She never lived to see the internet invented or the phenomenon of blogging grow from simple beginnings. I do know one thing for certain. Miss Eleanor Johnson would be tickled pink at the thought of people reading and writing for fun! Think about it, before blogging became popular when was the last time you wrote a long letter to someone, or wrote a short story or essay?

Someplace, in another dimension Eleanor Johnson is happily reaping the fruits of her labors. Her former students are expressing themselves with the written word and as Martha Stewart says, "That's a good thing!"

Here's a wonderful Christmas short story for you to read. A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote is one of my favorites. You can choose whether to read any deeper meaning into the story, or whether the baby carriage used to carry supplies is symbolic. If you ever get the chance, search for a copy of the made-for-TV movie starring Geraldine Page. It's very, very special.

Since I don't have anything particular in mind for tomorrow, we're just going to "wing it".

2 comments:

Vee ~ A Haven for Vee said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Vee ~ A Haven for Vee said...

Ohhh, I, too, adore Capote's "A Christmas Memory."

"Sometimes a dead bird is just a dead bird." ;) Your post is absolutely delightful; I haven't grinned this much in days. Thank you for writing just two days before Christmas...Miss Johnson would certainly have been proud!

(Sorry for deleting post above...I can't spell before three o'clock in the afternoon. You may not believe this, but my word verification code is dmnhour. Ha!)