Saturday, March 28, 2009

Goodbye, Miss Brodie.

My sister, Celia, called me a couple of nights ago.

"I just wanted you to know that Miss Brodie died," she said. "I know how much you liked her."

To say that I liked her was an understatement.

She was my high school English literature teacher.

Miss Brodie was the spinster daughter of one of the richest men in town. She had three other sisters who married and settled in our small Iowa town. Miss Brodie never married. She taught high school English for as long as anyone could remember.

She was a smallish woman, only about an inch taller than I was. She and her sisters and mother would go to New York every year to shop for clothes, so she was always looking very smart and well put together. She wore her hair in a pageboy and wore small round wire rimmed glasses.

She looked like the spinster she was, a well dressed, fashionable spinster, but a spinster.

No one ever misbehaved in Miss Brodie's classroom. Even the clowniest girls just didn't even attempt it. She had a way of looking somberly around the classroom and defying anyone who dared to act up. Not that she was severe, she wasn't. She was not one of those huggy, motherly teachers, nope, not Miss Brodie. She was polite and well spoken, but she wasn't the type of teacher that you could tell that you had cramps and needed to go to the nurse's office.

She was not much of a laugher, but she smiled sometimes. She loved her subjects. She began with Shakespeare for freshman English and then went on to Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne. By the time we were seniors, we were expected to write our senior essay. We could pick any topic, but it had to be well researched.

I first got to know Miss Brodie when I was a freshman. She had assigned us Romeo and Juliet.

I had never read Shakespeare before. I was a voracious reader, but I read The Little House books, the Beany Malone series, everything by Maud Hart Lovelace.

I had never read...true literature.

Shakespeare shook me to the bone.

I was speechless with joy that there was someone who had written all these masterpieces. I couldn't believe how extraordinarily gorgeous the language was in his sonnets, his plays, his everything.

One day, I sat in the library reading my copy of Romeo and Juliet. I was spellbound. I would read one bit of dialogue and then go back and read it again and again, lost in the beauty of it all.

I could feel my throat tighten with love at his words. My eyes flooded. I surreptitiously wiped my eyes on the sleeve of my girls uniform.

And felt a hand on my shoulder.

I looked up to see Miss Brodie standing over me, smiling warmly. "Are you okay, Miss Lastname?" she asked.

I nodded. I debated telling her why I was crying and decided not to. I had cried over books before in my mother's presence and she had thought me odd. I didn't want to risk looking foolish.

I looked back down bleakly at the page.

"Why don't you come with me for a bit?" she asked.

It wasn't really a question. If Miss Brodie wanted you to go someplace with her, you went.

She lead me into her empty classroom and had me sit in a chair by her desk and then she sat down in her desk chair and waited patiently.

Finally, I spilled.

I picked up my copy of Romeo and Juliet and tapped it.

"It's just...I love this book," I said.

Miss Brodie looked skeptical. I'm sure she had been expecting me to come forth with some tale of a boy who didn't return my affection or a snub by some girl in the lunchroom.

I tried again. "It's just...I never knew that there was...writing....like this...in the world," I said, my voice shaking with emotion. "It's so beautiful. It hurts to read it, you know? But, I don't want to stop. Ever."

She frowned and then smiled a little. "So, you are crying over...William Shakespeare?" she asked.

I nodded again, looking down at my shoes. "I love how he makes you feel not just how Romeo and Juliet feel but how Mercutio feels to always be stuck playing the fool when he has so much in his heart, and how the nurse loves Juliet, but she knows that she can't go up against her father and come out okay. And the friar, how he knows that he will probably pay in the end, but he decides to do the right thing anyway because he believes in the power of love."

Miss Brodie asked me when my next class was and she stood up and wrote a note to my teacher and then went to the hall and found a student to deliver the note saying that I would be late to class. And then, she sat down with me and we talked for a long time about Shakespeare. We talked about the cadence of his words, how maybe it didn't always make much sense on paper, but how it all changed when you read it aloud. She said that his works were meant to be read out loud and how you could feel the power in how well he chose his words. She told me that she had the complete works of William Shakespeare in her home and that she would be bring me a volume at a time until I had read the whole set.

I was floating on air when I walked out of her classroom. She kept her word. I read the complete set of William Shakespeare by my sophomore year. And she didn't stop there. She always had a book to replace the one that I read. She had me read Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee. She had me read Animal Farm and Our Town.

She smuggled in a copy of The Catcher in the Rye and managed to convey to me that I should read it but not let the principal, Sister Alphonse, know.

I decided that Holden Caulfield was absolutely my cup of tea.

Miss Brodie was the subject of much speculation among the girls in my school. Someone had heard that she almost got married once, but had been jilted at the altar. Someone else heard that no, it was she who jilted the boy. No one knew. When I asked my mother if she knew anything, she sniffed.

"Those Brodies are all sure that their bowel movements don't smell," she said. "They all live in that big mansion on the edge of town and keep to themselves. So, hoity toity..."

I didn't mention her again.

I liked her so much. I loved her English classes. She didn't just teach literature and writing, she would teach us what the conditions were like where the books were written, how the writer lived. I remember her bringing in slides of the three types of architecture to show us what it looked like where the ancient writers wrote.

"Who can tell me what sort of column this?" she would ask, showing us a slide. "Is this doric, ionic or corinthian?"

In my junior year, she began to teach us to write our own stories. She asked us to write about an everyday hero in our lives. I chose to write about the woman who came to help my mother do the wash. Miss Brodie asked me to stay after class the next day. I saw her holding my paper in her hands and I stumbled as I walked to the front of the class, afraid that I had chosen badly. Most of the other girls had written about a family member. Maybe I should have chosen better?

But no. She sat down with me. The first sentence she said to me was, "Maria, you are a born writer."

I flushed with pleasure.

She praised my writing and told me that I should begin keeping a journal. I told her that I didn't dare, that my mother might find it. That she already hated it that I spent too much time reading, if she thought I was cooping myself up in the house to write...well, she would find a closet for me to clean.

Miss Brodie smiled. "Ah, it seems we have similar mothers," was all she said.

It was tradition in our girl's academy that each senior girl was invited for tea with Miss Brodie. My turn came in December. I dressed carefully for the occasion, putting on my nicest dress and my patent leather pumps that made me wobble just a little bit. My mother drove me to the Brodie mansion on the edge of town, grumbling again about how those Brodies just thought they were god's gift, didn't they? But, she knew enough not to forbid me to go. In fact, she told me to keep my manners on and remember to keep my left hand in my lap at all times and not to slurp my tea.

As if.

It was a lovely afternoon. Miss Brodie served our tea in a hodgepodge tea set. The saucers and cups were mismatched but somehow looked perfect together. I found the courage to ask her why she didn't use a matched set and she cocked her head and told me that she collected china and that she had a fondness for each piece and felt they should all be used. Just because they didn't have a matching cup didn't mean that they shouldn't be used, right? And didn't I think they looked pretty?

I did think so. And told her this.

We talked about books and my writing. She again told me that I was talented and expressed the hope that I would find a way to leave this little town and "give the world the gift of yourself."

I told her that wild horses couldn't keep me here, that once I graduated, I was gone for good. She smiled and for the first time, I noticed that her eyes were a merry bluish purple.

"I hope you have a wonderful life, Maria. I have enjoyed having you for a student," she told me. "I have taught for over twenty years and you are the first student that I have had who cried over William Shakespeare. I think you are going to go places."

My heart swelled with gratitude. I lived on a working farm. I milked cows and slopped pigs, spent many hours weeding the garden and feeding the chickens. My Da was dead and my Mother had no place in her heart for a girl who cried over William Shakespeare. She wanted me to get good grades, yes. But, she didn't want me mooning over some dead English writer. She would have found that ridiculous. It was bad enough that I wanted to go to college. Her hope for her daughters was that they find good men to marry and settle down in that small Iowa town.

I was going to disappoint her and I knew it.

But, as I said, wild horses couldn't have kept me there.

As I was getting ready to leave the tea party, I worked up my courage and blurted out, "Why did you stay here? Why did you come back here after college?"

Miss Brodie looked at me carefully before she replied.

"My mother needed me to come home," she finally said. "My sisters were all married and my father had died and she wanted one of us to take care of her. Since I was unmarried, it was left to me to do that."

I felt badly for her. "Did you ever want to move away?" I asked.

She was quiet for a moment.

"Yes," she answered. And I knew not to ask any more. So, I didn't. I thanked her for the tea and cookies and fumbled with my coat when the butler brought it to me. We had a strained moment when he tried to help me on with it and I tried to take it out of his hands, not understanding what he was doing.

The rest of the year passed. Miss Brodie introduced me to Oscar Wilde. To Ernest Hemingway (who I must admit that I disliked, to this day I think it is bizarre that all his wives called him Papa.) She gave me a book of poems by ee cummings on my graduation day with a bookmark marking this poem.

I have a poster of that poem framed and hanging in my office at home. It reminds me that I never have to be stuck.

I didn't see much of Miss Brodie after that. She continued to teach English. She taught my little sister, Jessie. Jessie disliked her, said that she was always asking her if she loved books as much as her older sister did.

Jessie was more of a Seventeen magazine sort of reader and she was more into cheerleading and dancing with the Irish dancers. She wasn't in the nerdy Hermione Granger set the way that her older sister was. She liked Shaun Cassidy, not William Shakespeare. She was in the popular group.

When my mother disowned me for coming out as a lesbian, I didn't come back home for over ten years. But, one day, out of the blue, I received a package in my mail with a postmark from my little Iowa town.

There was a book inside. A worn copy of Thoreau's Walden. Inside, was a small, neatly written blue note card. It quoted from the book:

If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music he hears, however measured and far away.

It was signed by Miss Brodie with the words: I have always counted you as one of my brightest students. I am proud of all you have accomplished. Be strong.

I cried when I read that and gently fingered the book, raising it to my nose and smelling deeply of it. There is no smell like that of an old, well loved book. I tucked the card into the book and put it on my bookshelf. It is still there.

After my mother died and my sisters and I patched things up, I came back to that small Iowa town for one of my niece's graduations. Liv was a toddler by then. After the graduation ceremony, I found Miss Brodie sitting in the teacher's section. She must have been in her 80's then, but she was still teaching English. My niece had her for a teacher and said she was hard and expects too much. Good.

Set that bar high. She always did.

I leaned down and re-introduced myself, holding Liv close to me on my hip. Miss Brodie recognized me at once, told me that of course she recognized me, that I had been one of her favorite pupils. How could she forget me? Poppycock. She would always remember me.

We smiled at each other. She told me that she had heard that I had done well for myself and was this my daughter? She had heard that I had one...

I proudly showed her my Liv. Liv had just woken up from sleeping in my lap for the whole graduation ceremony and was all pink cheeked and tossle haired, adorable.

We didn't speak much. No time. I gently hugged her and she let me. And then I said goodbye and left with my family, looking back once at her before I slid Liv into her car seat. She was still sitting in the teacher's section, talking to a graduate and her parents.

I hadn't seen her since. I heard that she retired a few years ago. I heard that one of her sisters had moved in with her after her husband died and that they prattled around in that old mansion, just the two of them, their four cats and various servants.

I hope that her death was peaceful.

I hope that she knows what a difference she made in my life. She was an important bridge that crossed me over. I probably should have told her that. I wish I had. I don't think I ever told her exactly how much she meant to me. How she made this small town farmer's daughter feel like it was okay to adore William Shakespeare.

Goodbye, Miss Brodie...and hey, guess what? I collect china too. I have a cabinet full of mismatched saucers, cups and plates and I use them often.

I'm glad that you made this drummer feel good about stepping to the music she hears.

Thank you.

45 comments:

Mathman6293 said...

Sorry to hear about Miss Brodie but your story about how she made a difference in your life is wonderful. Thank you for sharing it.

kristi said...

I had a teacher like this. He was awesome.

And my Mom always chastised me for reading too much.

I could not help it, I was trying to escape.

jyankee said...

That was beautiful and she was right...you do have a way with words and your tribute to her really moved me. I wonder if we all could be as fortunate to have a teacher that touched us as profoundly as Ms Brodie did you?

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Maria, this was so very beautiful. Miss Brodie was one of your guardian angels, and you were very likely the child she never had, the child of her heart.

I still carry Miss Derthick's heart in my heart. She was my third grade teacher, the only one in elementary and high school who enjoyed my inquisitiveness and did not consider it a nuisance.

On the last day of the school year, we filed past her as she stood by the door, wishing each of us a good summer. As I got to her, she leaned down and quickly dropped a light kiss on my forehead, whispering "I loved you best, Susan. Don't ever change."

If only more people realized what an enormous effect a good teacher can have on a child, I'm sure there would be more Miss Brodies and Miss Derthicks. At least, I hope so.

sparsely kate said...

Gosh that was so beautiful and Mrs Brodie was right, Maria. You are one of the special sort of writers.

Earth Muffin said...

(sniff)

Maria, that was absolutely beautiful. Thank you for sharing.

(sniff)

sister AE said...

What a wonderful tribute!

jenny said...

great post, i read it slowly, enjoying each bit, unsual for me, i always speed read!

I keep bumping into my favourite primary school teacher, she looks the same to me even after 30 years but suddenly i can see how tired she is, same school for so long!

the only daughter said...

My son has a "Miss Brodie" in his history as do I. Very special people, those teachers.

I'm would wager that Miss Brodie was quite aware of the impact she had on her very special student.

Peace.

MmeBenaut said...

Oh Maria, of course Miss Brodie was right about you being a born writer. She would have blushed to read this but she would be so proud too, of her star pupil. It is wonderful that she came into your life and showed you another way to live than the way the rest of your family did. Hallelujah to that. And bless you for crying over Shakespeare. I enjoyed his writing but I don't think it made me quiver. You are exceptional you know.

Julie Curtis said...

I'm glad that you had a teacher that inspired you Maria. Good teachers who bring out the best in their students can be a rarity. I hope that Liv will have one too.


We had a strained moment when he tried to help me on with it and I tried to take it out of his hands, not understanding what he was doing.

Isn't it strange how we sometimes remember the tiniest details of a moment?

Jill said...

What a beautiful tribute to a wonderful woman. I know how much it means to have someone believe in you and support you when you when you feel so out of place.

pins said...

I'm glad you are sharing your wonderful stories with us. This one brought me to tears.

"Give the world the gift of yourself" - wonderful advice!

Anna said...

This post had me in tears, literally, in tears. I'm still crying as I type this.

I am continually amazed at how alike we are Maria, in so many aspects. I know you must get this a lot and it's mighty strange coming from a 23 year-old European chick, but it's the truth.

My favourite writer is William Shakespeare and he has been since I was 12 and first read... Romeo and Juliet. In all my high-school years, I never encountered anyone else who liked him. I still haven't. But I love reading him and as much as I have read by him, Romeo and Juliet continues to be my favourite story. I think it's the deepest and most subtle one of his works, while at the same time having a lot of... pezzaz?! Anyway, I know how you feel now and how you must have felt back then.

I'm sorry that Miss Brodie died, it seems like she was an incredible woman in her own quiet, concentrated way. I had a history teacher in high-school who made me feel the way she did you.

Love,

Anna

ps: my favourite poem *in the world* is by ee cummings, it's the one starting "i carry your heart with me" - I have it written on a postcard depicting dark, silvery angel wings, it hangs above my bed.

dive said...

Thank you, Miss Brodie, for the gift of Maria.

Shan said...

Wonderful story Maria. Just wonderful. I see now why you feel like you should have been a teacher, having had a wonderful connection with such an important one.

I feel certain you inspire people in any job you have Maria. Motherhood is a great position to be an example and an encouragement. I've always looked up to my mother and I'm sorry you didn't have that experience but I'm glad you can be that kind of mom for Liv. :)

Stacy said...

I loved this story, Maria. Thank you so much for sharing it. I was all about reading and writing through my school years. I was blessed to have several wonderful teachers, but the one I adored and who encouraged me to listen to that different drummer came along in high school. I got to see her a little over a year ago for the first time since then and she took one look and me, knew me by name, and hugged me. I'm still smiling.

Eric said...

What a wonderful post about a wonderful woman, thank you for sharing Miss Brodie's story with us.

Miss Healthypants said...

I absolutely got the chills when I was reading this--it was so beautiful.

Miss Brodie was right--you ARE a born writer!! I feel so lucky to have discovered your blog. This was just wonderful.

Rose Vanden Eynden said...

What a beautiful tribute to Miss Brodie, Maria.

My degree is in education, and I had many inspiring teachers while in school. I always dreamed that I'd touch just one student the way Miss Brodie touched you.

And, just so you know...I cried the first time I read Shakespeare, too. :-)

Fusion said...

Another beautiful post Maria, and a very nice story about a very special teacher who made a very big difference in your life.

Goodbye Miss Brodie, thank you for inspiring my friend.

Anonymous said...

I hope you know how lucky to have a Miss Brodie. I've often wondered how my life would have/could have been different with even one teacher who could have seen the potential in me, a potential it took me another thirty years after school to recognize in myself. And this should be a reminder to all of us to resach out to the young Marias or Marios in our lives as often as we can.

greymatters said...

"My mother needed me to come home," she finally said. "My sisters were all married and my father had died and she wanted one of us to take care of her. Since I was unmarried, it was left to me to do that."
******

Uhh ... I get that.

Your post made me cry -- in a good way. My Brother nicked one of my copies of Walden a few years back -- we both had a teacher somewhat like yours, and he lost his copy (and figured since I had five, I'd not miss one of 'em, and he was right in most senses).

((((Maria))))

Gorgeous post.

And my great Auntie Hedge was the one who hipped my Mom, who hipped me, on the (seemingly) mismatched china cups and saucers.

LL Cool Joe said...

I often wish I'd had a teacher that made a difference in my life. I probably did, but was too dumb to notice.

Anonymous said...

Another beauty, Maria.

By the way, as a teacher, I can tell you:

We know when we reach people -
that's the reason we teach.

We also love great students as much as students love great teachers.

Great students + great teachers =
love fest.

Still... thanks and acknowledgement... always good.

I know I savor the cards, bookmarks, cheesecakes and all the other ways my students have thanked me... even tho' I don't actually like cheesecake!

Your post makes me want to look up and thank the special teachers in my past.

Mr. Cisneros... Mr. Shorr... where are you now?

ZC

deb said...

You made me cry. I wish I'd had a teacher like Miss Brodie. You were blessed to have her in your life.

Terroni said...

Miss Brodie was right...Shakespeare is meant to be read aloud, and you are a writer.

The passage from Walden reminded me of the college professor who first introduced me to that beautiful work. I had such a crush, and I could never quite figure out if it on Dr. Davis or on Thoreau. I'm still not sure.

Mrs. Schmitty said...

I am so sorry. Miss Brodie sounded like a wonderful person.

Diane said...

how very lovely. you made me wonder where my miss brodie, mrs. contreras, is now. probably back in heaven, since she was an angel.

"when i do count the clock that tells the time..."

iamheatherjo said...

I just hopped over here from LL Cool Joe's place and I'm so glad I did.

This entry was absolutely beautiful and I enjoyed it a so much. What a wonderful tribute to a great teacher.

Snooker said...

What a wonderful way to memorialize Miss Brodie, in your eloquent prose.

Thank you Miss Brodie, for giving young Maria the gentle push toward the written word. The world is a better place for it.

Now if I could just stop crying like some fool as I sit here at work...

amusings_bnl said...

maria honey, that is a beautiful homage. as beautiful as any shakespeare sonnet.

Godspeed ye, miss brodie.

Beautiful Disaster said...

I wake up every morning eager to get to work and read a new post from you....this morning, like many mornings in the past, I am moved to tears...

...you write so elequently...always. You are a teacher as well...your writing inspires me....thank you...

...never stop dancin to your music....

Romany Angel said...

Breathtakingly beautiful as always Maria and God Bless Miss Brodie for the wise woman she was.

Kate said...

I had a Miss Brodie, only her name was Miss Dew. I continured to write to her after I went to college for advice on how to structure literary analyses. I haven't seen her in many years, but she is still striking terror into the hearts of high school English studnets, I know.

Old Crone said...

Maria,

It's been awhile, I haven't been keeping up. That story was wonderful. I told you a long time ago, that reading you was sometimes like reading a good book, now I know where you learned that. From Mrs. Brody. I'm so sorry she has passed. Isn't it amazing the influence some people have in our lives. I know for me, it was a professor I had in university, a holocaust survivor.

I hope all is well with you, Bing, Liv and Socks.

OC

neetzy said...

My daughter's first grade teacher reminds me of Miss Brody. She is still an inspiration. Wonderful story. My daughter at 16 is obsessed with Shakespeare.

tracer123 said...

I had a few teachers like that, but I disappointed them by being my own lazy self. I reckon overt sensitivity was maybe a little too much to expect from a suburban kid in '70's Australia, no matter how high you thought her IQ.

tracer123 said...

I had a few teachers like that, but I disappointed them by being my own lazy self. I reckon overt sensitivity was maybe a little too much to expect from a suburban kid in '70's Australia, no matter how high you thought her IQ.

Chris said...

Beautiful. Simply beautiful. I was blessed with teachers like that, as well.

This touched me deeply.

suesun said...

*sniff*

You need to write your memoirs......

This Mom said...

This post has brought tears to my eyes and memories to my heart. I was also the girl who loved english literature in high school. It was my favorite subject and I had the same teacher in 9th & 12th grade who really cultivated it. We read Romeo & Juliet out loud and I got to read Juliet's parts. It moved me so deeply... And Catcher in the Rye. Holden would have been my son's name had my cousin not chosen it for her baby. And then she ended up with a girl, too late for me to take it back.
Thank you for writing this.

The Crow said...

Paul Carriere was my Miss Brodie. He was my English and Literature teacher in high school in New Orleans. Mr. Carriere knew I was a kid from the Ninth Ward, the projects, and seemed to go out of his way to see that I had the books and other materials I need to learn to write.

Thank you for sharing your Miss Brodie, and your love for her, with the rest of us.

Martha

Lachlan said...

Miss Brodie was very right about you. We are gifted with your words, and your lovely insights.

I am sorry for this loss, but I suspect she had a full and amazing life, as private as it was. Godspeed, Miss Brodie.

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