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.
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.