The Era of Good Feeling
This is a hard story to write. There is so much that should be said about 4th grade – and yet it feels almost impossible to know what to say.
How does one describe a gold-tinged memory, a sunny afternoon, a happy time, an – era of good feeling? It is not so easy to delineate happiness as it is its opposite, as Tolstoy has noted.
That is not to say 4th grade was uneventful. Numerous things happened, both positive and negative, I feel sure. I remember we planted a tree for Arbor Day. I remember some very exciting softball games. Life in elementary school is, despite kids’ protestations to the contrary, rarely dull. After all, the place is full of kids.
Instead, that ever sunlit time that robs me of clarity of memory has to do with the way a teacher made us nine year olds feel – it has to do with her effect on her students.
Teachers come in all sort of appearances, with all sorts of personalities and with all sorts of styles – personal and professional. Some teachers are taskmasters – fair but demanding, they spur students to achievement; some are cheerleaders – they inspire confidence through constant encouragement. There are of course, other types, mostly worse (sadly), than those cited, but we’ll pass over them.
Then there was Miss Eliza Ruth – I was lucky enough to be one of her students.
Miss Ruth. Her “two first names,” as Larry Moose wittily observed one day early in the school year during a conversation among several of us as we walked to the playground behind the school, were a matter of some confusion for a few students for the entire school year, I think. At least it seemed so – two or three kids added a question mark – and a hesitation – in speaking to her that suggested to me uncertainty about whether they were using the correct form of address. “Miss Ruth?” became an insider’s joke among some of us who fancied ourselves the intellectual elite of Burton Grove School.
I knew more than most of my classmates about Miss Ruth. My mom had been in high school with her (albeit a year behind her) and occasionally mentioned interesting facts about Miss Ruth that allowed me to impress my friends in our afternoon salons conducted on the walk from Burton Grove to our homes in the Five Points neighborhood. She had been a basketball player (if what girls were allowed to play in those days could be called basketball , where most players had to trot to a spot on the court and stand still passing the ball until someone, out of sheer boredom, I assume, took a shot) in high school – quite a good one, it seems, averaging six points a game which made her in those circumscribed days of women’s sport damned near a scoring machine. She had also had a boyfriend who’d died in the Korean War – my mom said that was the story of why she was an “old maid.”
She was tall and slender and she wore either those printed dresses (like Beaver Cleaver’s mom wore) with Peter Pan collars and belts that accented her slenderness or calf-length skirts that looked like they’d be difficult to walk in and white or pastel blouses and cardigan sweaters that were very soft (I touched hers once as it hung on the back of her chair when I’d gone up to her desk to turn in some exercise sheet that I’d finished and she was across the room trying to help one of the “Miss Ruth?” kids understand a simple verb conjugation).
This, of course, tells you nothing about why I loved her class so much. Indeed, I am not sure I can tell you why I did. Wait, I think I can.
Miss Ruth loved learning. And she loved anyone who loved learning.
I realize now that she also loved teaching.
When I began this story I did so in the hope that I’d have more to tell you about Miss Ruth, about wonderful teachers who inspire students, about those who make learning matter even to the “Miss Ruth?” types.
But I’ve told you almost everything I know, imagine, or remember, probably incorrectly. All I have is an anecdote.
Here it is, remembered remarkably well to this day:
Halloween was a big deal back in those days of the Kennedy administration and The Andy Griffith Show. In a small town like ours it meant tons of kids out on a school night in costume gathering candy (a Tuesday – I looked it up) – and of course it meant lots of excitement, mischief, and discipline trouble that day at school. That afternoon Miss Ruth made a game of the last hour of the day to get us through that time before we tore home to begin getting ready for the Bacchanalia of Trick or Treating. She brought in a record player from the library and had students mime scenes to an LP of Halloween songs. The first couple of pantomimes went smoothly if somewhat tepidly, the primary actors being goody-goody girls. But then everyone’s favorite song, a ditty called “Trick or Treat for Halloween” came up in the queue. And Miss Ruth made the decision to allow Larry Moose, that aforementioned wit, to act out the song with the most goody of all the goody-goody girls, Deloris Bellevoir. Deloris played the person giving out treats, and Larry played the kid Trick or Treating. To give the story a little more – realism? oomph? – Miss Ruth had Deloris wait in the cloak room while Larry was to “knock” (in pantomime) at her door. She would then give him a “treat” (actually an eraser). Pretty tame stuff.
Unbeknownst to Miss Ruth (but well known to the boys in class), Larry had perfected the art of using his fingers to distort his face into various hideous expressions, a cause of great mirth on rainy days at the Local Boys’ Club which sat just down the hill from the school.
I suspect you can guess where this is going.
Miss Ruth started the record and the song wandered to its chorus:
“Trick or Treat for Halloween/Trick or Treat for Halloween
“Trick or Treat for Halloween/I’m knocking at your door…”
At the climax of this chorus, to which Larry dutifully followed Miss Ruth’s instructions and pretended to knock at the imaginary door to the cloak room, Deloris appeared, smiling, ready to give him his “treat.”
And Larry gave her his most grotesque face modification.
Deloris screamed and tossed the eraser into air as she dove back into the cloak room.
Miss Ruth was puzzled for a second. Of course, that’s all it took for Larry to turn to the class with his same distorted visage.
The girls screamed. The boys, who’d seen Larry’s talent on display many times, burst into roaring laughter.
In the midst of this chaos Miss Ruth stood, frozen by uncertainty, for a long minute or so. Then she began to laugh, too.
She turned, stopped the record, and wagged her finger at Larry, laughing all the while. Larry did then probably the only thing he could have done to save his bacon: he stopped his mugging, put his hands in the back pocket of his dungarees, and smiled at Miss Ruth sheepishly. She shushed the class, called Deloris from the cloak room, and motioned for Larry to come to where she stood. As Deloris emerged from the cloak room, Miss Ruth had her join them.
“Class,” she said, even as titters continued, “I think we can all agree that Larry and Deloris are our best pantomimes. Therefore -” she turned to her desk, reached into a drawer and drew forth a bag of Tootsie Pops and gave Larry and Deloris two each – “they each get TWO lollipops. And all the rest of you get one for being a wonderful audience.” She then had Larry and Deloris hand out the treats.
She was the kind of teacher who knew when to reward a kid for turning her classroom chaotic. Such teachers should live forever.
I absolutely loved the story about Miss Ruth! Thank you, Jim. You certainly know how to tell a story!