Our true teachers educate us only incidentally, particularly if we are destined to become painters or poets, gangsters or politicians, athletes or chefs, stand-up comics or astronauts, any category of social being composed of individuals who, compelled by mysterious and inexorable forces, must challenge the laws of conduct or nature or both. A true teacher knows that such humans are largely uneducable, and that her task regarding such as they is less to impart information and knowledge than simply to protect them at the most vulnerable stages of their development, their careening progress toward sometimes glorious, more often dubious fates.
I should have flunked sixth grade. My mother was dying of multiple sclerosis and my father was poised to get out of prison and was angry, if my mother’s nightly weeping over his letters were any indication. She was pregnant by a very nice sailor who had been kind to her and the five of us kids, but who was smart enough to sail away from the event horizon of our doom. He apologized to me, the oldest, before he left, and I accepted his apology. Just diagnosed, my mother was still, as we now say, processing her inescapable predicament. I was distracted in my sixth-grade classroom, at Chesterfield Heights Elementary, In Norfolk, Virginia, on the edge of the government housing projects where my mother and the five of us kids were sustained by a hundred and sixty-nine dollars a month from welfare.
I was failing because I couldn’t concentrate. All I could think about was my father’s messianic return, an event I’d anticipated, before the sailor’s gentle presence, with pubescent intensity, but in the wake of my mother’s sorrow and in anticipation of my father’s wrath I couldn’t focus on Mrs. Tunstle’s voice or what she screeched on the blackboard in her perfect cursive. I was indifferent to any speck of the future but the date of my father’s return. That season was the only period in my life when failure had no meaning.
One day, when Mrs. Tunstle asked me a question that I couldn’t answer because I hadn’t heard her and didn’t even know the subject the class was discussing, she paused, stared me into stone. Then she wiggle-wormed her finger for me to leave my seat and approach. The class, mostly black kids only a few years after desegregation, sat stupefied. Mrs. Tunstle grabbed her green spiral book in which she noted everything, led me out the door, into the hall, and closed it behind us.
She was tall, thin, severe. Her voice was deep and raspy, and her breath stunk of coffee and cigarettes. Kids feared “getting” her beginning as early as third grade. Having got her, I’d resigned myself to the scholastic torture for which she was infamous.
Earlier in the school year, before my mother’s diagnosis, before the sailor, before the pregnancy and rage-filled letters that arrived daily like a bird of prey to peck and slash all joy from my mother’s soul and body, I’d been fully engaged at school. Mrs. Tunstle, a pedagogic force of nature, had presented the class the task of composing, collectively, a play set in ancient Egypt, one that we would subsequently stage.
She’d stand at the board and elicit ideas, plot points, dialogue. There were at least thirty children in the class and I practically wrote the whole script. I was that kid who jumps from his chair and waves his raised hand, and, if not called upon immediately, both hands, and if still not recognized will semaphore as though guiding a jet onto a carrier. Mrs. Tunstle tried to get the others involved in that communal composition, but, usually, wearing a mask of reluctance, would point at me, tentatively, as though at a mug in a lineup she wasn’t quite certain was that of the perpetrator. We constructed costumes from tinfoil and pillow cases. I was a nobleman, and remember that, before the first of two performances in the “gymatorium,” Mrs. Tunstle, in her introduction, informed the audience of first-through-sixth graders and their teachers that the play they were about to experience had been composed by her entire class, and in that moment I felt cheated.
In the hall, Mrs. Tunstle opened her grade book and told me to read down one of the rows. Then she pointed at a number by Tony’s name, then the one by mine. She explained that they were scores we’d received on the day-long aptitude test we’d taken earlier in the year. Tony, a beautiful, gentle Filipino boy was the smartest kid in the class. He was a gifted drawer and was efficient and got everything right. My number was higher than Tony’s. She stabbed with her finger my number again and again and yelled at me without raising her voice, her breath so rank it made me nauseous.
Mrs. Tunstle probably broke some rule passing me, considering that I did almost nothing through that spring of my father’s return. More catatonic with dread than obdurate, I began to write down prayers that had nothing, except perhaps obliquely, to do with God, and when Mrs. Tunstle caught me scribbling one instead of adding columns of numbers from the board, she informed me it was a poem, and ordered me to stand, once more dishonored, with my nose pressed into the rear left corner of the room, below the portrait of Lincoln.
I did not love that foul-breathed, dyspeptic hag until years later, and then only through the gauze of nostalgia, and when I landed my first job, age sixteen, at the “geedunk” cafeteria on the Amphibious Base in Coronado, California, across the elegantly arcing blue bridge from San Diego, I entered servitude to another hag, another benign gorgon who protected me without my even knowing she sheltered me under her invisible, magnificent wing.
Ester Hale stood six feet, weighed perhaps a hundred and fifteen. She’d held the position of manager of the geedunk since before the Second World War. Her hair was white and short and permed. Her arms were blotched and bruised from work she shouldn’t have been doing given her status. Her beige face skin seemed chamois-rag soft and was webbed with wrinkles within wrinkles within wrinkles. Her lipstick was Red-Cross red and her voice as soft as lard, actual remnants of which it was my fortnight task to scrape and scrub from beneath the evil deep-fryers, and in which were embedded cockroaches that had expired, legs up, in the throes of what must have been something like ecstasy.
My daily duty, for five years, was to arrive at three-fifteen, after the cafeteria had closed its doors to famished sailors. Ester would unlock the door to let me in, then return to her calculator and logs in the rear of the single-story, square building.
I stacked one hundred and twenty chairs on thirty tables, swept the linoleum with a push broom, mopped it, waxed it, then shined it with an electric buffer, before unstacking the chairs. Ester always left me change to play the juke box, though she expressed muted distain for my playlist, the heart of which was Rod Stewart crooning “Maggie May,” Mick Jagger “Satisfaction,” Otis Redding “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay,” and, best of all, Eric Burdon belting out “House of the Rising Sun.” I had it timed so that I was setting the last chair on the shined linoleum as the Animals’ organ player squeezed out the final chords. Then I’d clean the mop and bucket, secure the buffer and wait by the side door for Ester Hale to finish the books.
Some Fridays she’d inform me I’d be coming in the next day to perform auxiliary duties such as clearing the muck and corpses from under the deep fryer, scrubbing the seeming-miles of molding with Ajax, water and a toothbrush, or washing the four glass doors and fourteen windows of the building. There was no refusing her, no begging off, no lame or legitimate excuses. For a buck seventy an hour and for whatever task she required my elbow grease and, often, marijuana-mellowed stick-to-it-ness, she owned me.
At twenty-one, I sauntered into a classroom at San Diego State. I was a junior, only two years from graduating, from actually completing successfully the gen. ed. courses one needed to garner a humanities degree. Installed in the seat of power at the front of the classroom was a gorgeous young woman.
My hair was shoulder-length and wild. I was barefoot. I went everywhere barefoot back then. I all but slithered into the second desk in the row nearest the wall, propped my filthy feet on the chair in front of me, lit a cigarette, winked. Unflustered, the new, young professor smiled at my insolence, even, I seem to recall, shook her head and blinked back mirth.
Three and a half years older than I, Carolyn Forche’ became my mentor. When we were young, I was much more her muse than she mine, if only because a muse cannot be a mentor, merely a catalyst for the heart’s more combustible reactions to the pith of life’s sorrows and joys.
It seems I was fated to accept the authority of one such as she, mercurial, flamboyant, abuzz with life force so intense whole rooms of smart people relented, gob-smacked, to her allure, a potion part medicine-show elixir part magical stuff.
She didn’t know much back then, and lucky for her I knew less, though what she knew she wielded like a perfect weapon for cutting the Gordian knots of rarified discourse, the bullshit of intellectual intrigue. I was along for the ride of my life, and she drove me in her brown Honda Civic to the end of the 70s, where I jumped out, the car still rolling, and made it, barely, to the train called the Crescent, via Atlanta, to New Orleans.
Ester Hale unlocked to let me out and followed, locking the double doors behind. She wore an all-white uniform every day, the skirt catching her four inches below her knees, and some winter evenings, as we departed, a thin, sky-blue knit sweater. “Do you need a ride, Rick?” she’d ask, knowing I’d answer yes as I did every other six forty-five p.m.
The image of her hand—her thin arm nicked, bruised and covered in age spots, slowly, barely quivering from the strain of extending to the passenger-side lock—pulling up the button, day after day after day, to let me enter her immaculate, mid-60s Buick Skylark, is an image inexplicably tattooed on my heart. We didn’t talk much on the half-mile ride through the security gate guarded by Marines, onto the Silver Strand, past the marina and the Chart House Restaurant, past the Victorian Hotel Del Coronado, into tony downtown, where she pulled over on Orange Avenue and let me out in front of Joey’s Pizza.
The day our father returned, the five of us kids performed for him, like a traveling troupe for a king, though he was the interloper within the painted cinderblock walls of our dingy domain. I played my tuba, requisitioned from the Chesterfield Heights Elementary School band, and he drank whiskey through the evening.
I awoke to my mother screaming, ran to her door and saw my father, that stranger, punching her, again and again, in her fifth month.
Our true teachers are disseminators of skills and information only secondarily; they’re primarily guides to the dragon’s den, where the smoldering monster of comparative identity sleeps fitfully on a horde of the world’s glittering indifference, where each student has her individuality locked to the multiplicity of soul-grinding and soul-sustaining competition, and love, alas, becomes a matter of gradations.
Ester Hale’s pedagogic modus operandi was to shame. On those weekends she compelled me to assume auxiliary duties, she would emerge from her office, off the enormous, dark pantry, her crisp, white uniform that of a militant angel, and inspect my work. She would actually tsk as she surveyed, run her immaculate finger over whatever surface she had charged me with emancipating from the grime and corporeal petulance of sailor’s shoes and hands, the nasty, often misogynistic treatises they carved and scrawled on toilet stalls and on the surfaces of tables. Then she would take the brush or cloth from my hand and begin to rub where I had rubbed, or scrub where I had scrubbed, and filth, actual and symbolic, that I had found indelible, beneath her scrawny withered hand would begin to disappear.
When one apprentices to a chronological peer, sibling-like complications, and qualities of intimacy, are endemic to the power-relation. Carolyn was the oldest of seven, I of five. At first, I didn’t know how to be the younger brother of a strong older sister, but I adapted to her strength of will, her need to lead. Once, at a Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center potluck, attended by writers who, in a few years, would be household names in hundreds, in a couple of cases thousands of homes across America (such is the numerical valence of most writers’ fame), everyone at the long picnic table was arguing amicably in pairs. I found the tableau, and the ruckus, hilarious, and had an epiphany. I yelled and made the time-out sign; when everyone had piped down, I asked, “How many here are oldest kids?” There were more than a dozen poets and novelists, sculptors and painters; everyone looked around, bemused, and raised her or his hand. Absolutely everyone at that long picnic table, everyone seated at that groaning board of makeshift abundance, had been trying to dominate, with no malice and no conscious sense of entitlement, someone else at the table, as only an oldest child can.
Peer mentors, in sports, crime, and the arts, wield only the authority of example. On the field, the teammate who can’t perform what he demands is an object of distain. On the streets, the buddy not willing to chance getting popped is no reliable partner in larceny or any other miscreant enterprise. In the arts, as in sports and in crime, the peer mentor’s authority often has more to do with courage than wisdom; indeed, the peer mentor’s example is to exhibit the courage of flying in the face of common wisdom.
When Carolyn Forche’, barely out of her twenties, riding the success of one little book of poems, began her shuttle between Salvador and San Diego, and then Salvador and wherever else in America served as her temporary home base during those years, few or her friends and fewer of her own mentors offered unqualified support. My oldest daughter is now roughly the age that Carolyn Forche’ was then, and if my adult baby informed me that she would be visiting, regularly, a civil-war zone over the course of a couple of years, I certainly would not be enthusiastically supportive.
Mrs. Tunstle knew something was wrong in my home life, but something was wrong in almost every kid’s home life in that community. She had no compunction failing kids, keeping them back, as the euphemism still characterizes scholastic failure, though it was a time when the proverbial bar was higher, and consequently failure more frequent and “F,” therefore, not the scarlet letter it is today. Though I can’t help wondering how different my life would have been had she failed me, had she compelled me to repeat sixth grade. I can’t imagine the cascade of missed opportunities that would have followed, especially given that I attended hardly any of the following school year due to my father’s criminal machinations and my mother’s physical, and emotional, deterioration.
Ester Hale was my embodiment of the Greatest Generation, a designation I loathe when I consider Jim Crow, Hiroshima, internment camps, and Rosy the Riveter’s forced postwar domestication, and yet one I, well, hail when I recall Ester Hale’s gentle yet fierce loyalty to her job, her regal humility and Jobian patience with the likes of my boy-man self. She did not so much teach as condition me to scrub until all filth is gone, and if I have not always adhered to that principle, I’ve at least felt guilt for each failure to do so.
The gorgons were so dreadful that their images were chiseled onto public spaces for the purpose of civic protection. Of the three sisters, Medusa, the single beauty, was also the mortal one, and an issue of her severed head was Pegasus. The truth in myth must be distilled from millennia of patriarchal, serpentine agendas, and is often the essence of a power as elemental as any female mammal’s protective urge regarding its young.
That young woman who was my mentor and my friend, the older sister I’d not had and didn’t want or need, was by turns an artful dodger of the slings and arrows shot by the pious agents of institutional conservatism in the arts, and an embodiment of the righteous-shading-to-self-righteous progressive critique that is the bedrock of poetry’s implicit moral agenda. As is true of all transcendent talents in the arts, her acute instincts compensated for her inchoate intellect, and her courage, both physical and artistic, was a curative for American poetry’s smug sensitivities.
Freud connected Medusa to fear of castration, and of course he would. Academic feminists have reduced her to the purest expressions of female rage, and that certainly makes sense, but I prefer to contemplate the protective role of all three sisters, particularly Medusa. Perseus used her visage as a defensive weapon, eventually gifting her to that ultimate female protector, Athena, who installed that powerful head–out of whose detached body had issued Poseidon’s offspring, a giant and a winged horse—upon her shield.
It is not an exaggeration to assert that my gorgons saved my life. Mrs. Tunstle rescued me from the stupor of adolescent despair, in the sense that, instead of simply watching me sink below the churning waves of Poseidon’s jealous rage, she tossed me a plank; it wasn’t much, but I hung on and it was all I needed. Ester Hale instilled in me the duty to rub against the grain of entropy. All things may tend toward filth and decay, but everyone owes life a little elbow grease, everyone is duty-bound to sweep and scrub and buff and squeegee and rub and scrape all surfaces, exposed and not, and to empty the grease traps, change the grease in the deep fryers of the world.
Carolyn taught my young-man self a kind of humility, and certainly not by example, and certainly not deliberately. She taught me, without knowing or much caring, the humility that a person must feel in the presence of female power, and that that power is everywhere and at all times, and not to see and feel it is to be any Somali warlord, any NRA ass clown, any Russian oligarch, any Freedom Caucus Congressional crusader, any economic nationalist, any sexual predator, any offshore banker, any man or woman who opposes a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy on her own terms, any orange narcissistic meat puppet presuming to lead the Free World, any pedophile lacking restraint, any homophobe, any bully, anyone who harms for an abstract cause, any state senator who conspires to gerrymander districts and pass racist voter ID laws, any Internet troll, any subprime lender, almost any healthcare or insurance executive, and every goddamned petroleum executive, hedge-fund manager, and climate-change denier on the planet…to name a few.
Mrs. Tunstle and Ester Hale are long dead, and Carolyn Forche’ and I are old friends who rarely reconnect. Once in a while on Facebook, where she is active and I am nearly dormant, and once or twice every other year at this or that conference we cross paths, and I am always delighted to see and hear her for an hour here, twelve minutes there. We are not now what we were when we were young, for, like all who survive and manage, even modestly, to thrive, we are both more and less.
My youngest daughter, Ella, lives each year half in Prague and the other with me in Kalamazoo, Michigan. She attended the first half of the sixth grade with me, and is attending the second half in Prague living with her Czech mother. For her twelfth birthday last month I sent her a gift card to purchase books. She immediately acquired the Complete Works of Shakespeare, without prodding, and called me this morning, which was her Central-European afternoon, and said she’d purchased Lord of the Flies and A Clockwork Orange. She’d chosen those particular books without being directed, influenced, and we chatted about them, about power and violence, about males when they are left to their own devices. The father of three females, I feel sufficiently protected from my own worst tendencies.