There was something about the story in today's Times about the school superintendant who inadvertently sent out a "kill these people" email (she did not mean it to be taken literally) that reminded me, improbably, of Mrs Cochrane, my homeroom teacher in eighth grade. Mrs Cochrane was still pretty in her forties (as I think she must have been), Irish and slightly plump, with eyes that sparkled when she was pleased, which she often was in spite of herself. At least with me. Looking back, I see that I brought out this sort of conflicted response in many of the women who taught me before I went to (then all-male) boarding school. Mrs Cochrane explained the meaning of the word "juxtaposition," which I came across in Mein Kampf. Heaven only knows what sordid impulse inspired me to pick up that bit of light reading from the school library; all I remember is that I did not get very far. I'm sure that I dropped it as soon as my original, transgressive point had been made.
Two years later, Mrs Pitella, as sharp and sparkly as Mrs Cochrane but not quite so doubtful and impervious, had to cope with my Robert Benchley problem. (I think that I've written about this before, although I can't find it.) Among the books on the homeroom's modest shelves was The Benchley Roundup, a collection of the once-eminent humorist's pieces. The Benchley problem was my inability to read these pieces - "Why Do We Laugh - Or Do We?", "Throwing Back the European Offensive," and "Opera Synopses" - without disrupting the otherwise quiet classroom. I didn't just snicker or giggle or snort. I bellowed, shook, screamed, fell out of my chair.
Here is a footnote from "Why Do We Laugh?"
* Gunfy, in his Laughter Considered as a Joint Disease, holds that the letter "W" is not essential to the beginning of a joke, so long as it comes in somewhere before the joke is over. However, tests made on five hundred subjects at the Harvard School of Applied Laughter, using the Mergenthaler Laugh Detector, have shown that, unless a joke begins with the letter "W," the laughter is forced, almost unpleasant at times.
I can read this satire of scholarly mumbo-jumbo without shrieking now, but in tenth grade I was reduced to quivering protoplasm by the mere mention of the "Mergenthaler Laugh Detector." (It was saddening, in a way, to discover in later years that there actually are people named "Mergenthaler.") Mrs Pitella, sometimes quite sternly, would order me to quiet down, but her eyes betrayed an entirely different feeling. "Hallelujah!" they shouted. "A student who responds to literary humor."
Where I am going with this is to a strange new feeling. I used to recall Mrs Cochrane and Mrs Pitella with no small mortification. They had squinted at me, dubious yet not dismissive - but I had not, in the end, lived up to the promise that they intermittently saw in me. I may have worked hard at my radio-station job, but that culd never been "serious." They would have felt, as quite a few people who were not my father felt, that, while I had most of the basic equipment required for the practice of law, my temperament pointed in other directions. And then, all those years of playing house-and-garden in the country. They would certainly not approved of that, no matter how much they liked my cooking.
But in the end, that wasn't "the end." If "the end" is my life nowadays, then I have to admit that I wish that they could see me now. I don't think that I've let them down, after all. They might even be regular readers. (October 2007)
Copyright (c) 2007 Pourover Press