Lessons From A Schoolmarm

I had a literature teacher in fifth grade who called me ``MaryBeth'' in a way that made my heart shudder. No one else could accurately mimic her intonation, although behind her back we certainly tried.

She was a severe woman, an institution in our grade school. She was an original from the one-room-additions-and-annexes-thereafter school, before we baby boomers made it necessary to build new elementary buildings throughout the land. She wore her hair in a tight bun, dresses to her mid-calf, and sturdy, black, laced orthopedic shoes.

Anyway, this starchy lady once made us memorize Longfellow:

``Under a spreading chestnut-tree

The village smithy stands;

The smith, a mighty man is he,

With large and sinewy hands;...''

It was a long poem, and one by one, randomly, she'd call our names, to stand and recite a few verses until the class had said the whole thing without missing a beat. We didn't perform this for our parents at a school concert for applause; no, it was a mere expectation of everyday learning in her book - McGuffey readers that is.

Recitation day still brings a knot to my stomach, remembering the wait till she called my name, the anxiety setting in, the sweaty palms, and the lottery beginning ... when ``MaryBeth!'' she issued, and I shot up to say the first few lines. Those are the only lines I remember to this day.

I recall wondering what ``sinewy'' meant; diction-aries were not standard tools in fifth grade, in my day. Today third-graders get them as required school supplies. For weeks thoughts ran through my head about this poor smithy and the sinewy part of him.

I'm quite certain our teacher must have felt assured that ``sinewy'' was an everyday part of a fifth-grader's vocabulary. As if at home, perhaps around the dinner table, our mothers or fathers would bring into conversation something about ``what a sinewy man the village smithy was.''

It seems we probably need more teachers like her today. She was the sort who stifled thoughts of throwing spitballs or squirming in seats. Eagle-eyed, she had a piercing glare over the rims of her bifocals. Her mouth was always puckered. I don't recall anyone ever daring so much as to raise his or her hand for bathroom permission during literature class.

My guess is, when she had lunchroom duty, no milk was spilled in all her years at the elementary school. She never raised her voice; sitting stiffly behind her desk, face rigidly set, was warning enough. We were a well-ruled bunch. I'm just certain the way she called our names for attention was all she needed to keep every rascally one of us rock still and sober.

``MaryBeth!'' The ``Beth'' part belching up one note in sharp staccato was enough to make me jump, in my gut feeling I'd done something wrong, knowing I hadn't. None would dare to do anything wrong, even those who went on, notoriously, to spend the rest of their school careers in the detention hall.

Today, with three kids of my own, I use her technique; to good effect I might add! When a middle name is evoked I gain rapt, immediate attention. No messin' with Mom. A lesson learned all those many years ago in the fifth grade.

No, there just aren't enough of those kind of teachers around anymore - worth their weight in dictionaries.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.