Tuesday, May 01, 2007

One more thing before I go

A couple of years ago I wrote a short piece on the occasion of my third-grade teacher's retirement that I ended up posting here because it turned out to be an essay about reading. I've just written another for the teacher I had in fifth and sixth grade; I'm not sure it will be of general interest, some of the references are a bit obscure (and really it is a testament to the progressive education of the late 1970s and early 1980s, eh?!? No wonder I loved school...) but I thought a few of you might be interested.

("Contracts" were the name for one of the major features of the elementary-school curriculum, in which each student would be assigned a suitable number and range of written questions and other tasks--things like making the shield of Medusa out of papier mache--that s/he undertook to complete by a given date, making it a matter of a personal and more-or-less tailored obligation between student and teacher; the Winesapple Apple Corporation was a way of learning about stocks and shares and companies, but also involved apple-picking and bake sales. And here is the website for the school, if you're curious.)

Here goes: in honor of Katy Hineline's retirement.

Part of Mrs. Hineline’s genius in a classroom full of fifth and sixth graders had to do with the way she was such a good teacher for boys and for girls also. Ten and eleven are awful years in which it creepingly begins to dawn on you that it’s going to mean something quite different to be a girl as opposed to a boy, and I am inclined to think that Mrs. Hineline must have been the only person in the world in 1981 or 1982 (with the possible exception of my English grandmother) who did not render me savage and sullen when she drew attention to some aspect of my appearance with a compliment.

The striking fact in retrospect is the ways the influence of Mrs. Hineline worked to make us nicer. The word nice is often belittled, and yet I remember the genuine deep dyed-in-the-wool niceness of girls like Cori Schreiber and Molly Kelly and the way it was allowed to thrive in the best possible way in the culture of the Hineline classroom. Mrs. Hineline made it easy for us to be nice. The girls were nice to the boys and the boys were nice to the girls and (perhaps most amazingly) the girls were nice to each other.

Things I remember with great fondness:

Making paper as part of learning about Marco Polo’s trip to China.

Reading group at that table in the middle of the classroom. (Books I read and loved in that setting included E. L. Konigsberg’s A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver and The Second Mrs. Giaconda, and also—a novel that remains a favorite of mine and that then had me absolutely in its thrall—T. H. White’s The Once and Future King.)

Playing Friar Tuck with a pillow under my monk’s habit and Malvolio with yellow cross-gartered stockings.

The honor of Mrs. Hineline asking me to adapt Twelfth Night for our class play (but also the chagrin of her scaling down the extent of my written assignments for the “contract” we were then working on—I felt I should do more than anybody else, I didn’t see why the other thing should mean I had to do less!).

I remember Mrs. Hineline with what seemed to me even at the time as amused horror rather than actual disbelief asking me one Monday morning what I had done over the weekend and me saying “I read The Agony and the Ectasy” and her saying rather hopefully (Irving Stone’s biographical novel about Michelangelo being roughly eight hundred pages long) “You mean you finished reading The Agony and the Ecstasy?” and me saying blithely and truthfully that I had indeed read the whole book over the weekend (and probably a few others also, though I imagine I had the tact not to mention them). These were also the years of Jane Austen and Robert Graves, I must have read I, Claudius half a dozen times over that couple-year period of being in Mrs. Hineline’s class.

Mrs. Hineline showed me how to fall in love with real history as opposed to the mythological world of ancient Greece, my previous passion; I remember spending many hours compiling notes on historical sources and transforming my material into the year-long diary of a medieval English peasant or a first-hand account of a young nobleman compelled to chronicle the rise and fall of Savonarola. (These were the first things I wrote that really showed me what kinds of novels I wanted to write, and I found myself remembering those narratives when I took a seminar near the end of college from Simon Schama on writing narrative history, a class that together with those early writing experiences helped me understood why the typical fiction-writing class didn’t speak to me and how I could find a different mode of writing that would engage the whole range of my interests.)

I have Mrs. Hineline to thank for my youthful grasp of a technical medieval military vocabulary (trebuchet, crenellation).

I remember (this was not at school) helping to give Mrs. Hineline’s handsome Maine Coon Cat Eggamoggin regular flea baths—an interesting and challenging assignment, more dangerous than anything we did in the classroom....

I remember Mrs. Hineline’s lovely assistant Stan Kenyon showing me how to calculate square roots with pencil and paper (a pointless but enjoyable skill which I no longer retain) and the cheerful daily morning greeting of the task that elicited my most maniacal enthusiasm and energy, MOTB or VOTB (math on the board, vocabulary on the board—since I always got to school before the building was even open, the classroom was a warm haven & vocabulary an absolute delight compared to that penitential winter lurking outside the building till the doors opened at eight).

I remember suffering a crisis of guilt over not being able to fulfill my duties as secretary of the Winesapple Apple Corporation because of an unfortunately scheduled clarinet lesson, only Val Minor stepped in and saved the day!

I remember Mrs. Hineline (a good friend to the Davidson family) having us all to stay at her summer house in Stonington, Maine and being a remarkably good sport about the vast quantities of food we expected to consume at every meal (the thing I remember most vividly from that trip, I must confess, is my effort to memorize “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in its entirety—to this day it is pretty much the only long poem that I could even attempt to say by heart).

I especially remember my imagination being in the grip of the roster of tasks we had to complete as we studied the middle ages in order to receive our “knighthood”—musical tasks and tasks involving embroidery, tasks literary and mathematical. It was not so much the individual things we did as the sense of there being all sorts of ways of approximating the kind of ideal of self-improvement and self-testing undergone by the notional knights of Arthur’s court, and in fact, I’ve thought of the knighthood tasks several times recently, because (this is farfetched, and not what my poor gym teachers would have predicted!) my imagination is now in the grip of a different set of tests—ones related to training for a triathlon or a marathon. I am not sure exactly what it is in human nature that makes us want to try ourselves in this way, but I know that Mrs. Hineline’s real gift as a teacher wasn’t just the love and intelligence she mustered for her subject matter but the way that she made every single one of her students want to work like a demon in order to satisfy her high standards, and the way that her very highest standards were reserved for consideration and thoughtfulness of others rather than any simple notion of academic accomplishment.