Imparting a Love of Learning

Miss Audrey Weston. I can see her now. She was my high school English teacher and my heroine. There was a sureness in the way she stood at the open door of Room 204, one hand on the doorknob and the other on her hip -- a long, freshly sharpened pencil tucked into the twisted knot of hair at the back of her neck.

Miss Weston had snappy brown eyes that fire-danced when she smiled. Her thin lips swept into a delicate V-shaped smile revealing the tiniest thread of gold on a front tooth -- an understated touch of splendor befitting her distinguished demeanor.

She wore tailored suits and silk shirtwaists fastened at the neckline with a cameo. Her shapely legs were full at the calf, but they narrowed nicely into small ankles. Dainty feet were tucked into soft leather pumps.

And she was brilliant -- freshly graduated from Milwaukee Downer College, a Phi Beta Kappa (she readily informed us, explaining the small gold key she wore). She called it ''fi-bate.''

''Did you say you were fly bait?'' Whizzer Whitman was the class clown and he'd say just about anything. ''Didn't know flies needed house keys.''

''Phi Beta Kappa,'' she explained icily, ''is the most elite of honor societies.''

How I idolized this paragon of pedagogues who knew absolutely all there was to know about everything.

Pithecanthropus erectus. She took half the blackboard writing it in her swift hand. Even her handwriting looked intelligent. There was little concern for shaping ''e's'' and ''a's.'' It all came out slanting far to the right with a haughty, nonchalant sameness about every letter.

She swept aside, pointing at what she'd written. Did anyone know what it meant? Well, hardly.

It was, she explained, an extinct primate, another name for Java man. There have been happenings of far greater personal import in my life that I've forgotten, but I never forgot that word or that demonstration.

Even more memorable was the day she began reading to the class in a foreign language:

Whan that Aprille with his schowres swoote

The drought of Marche hath perced to the roote,

And bathud every veyne in swich licour,

Of which vertue engendred is the flour ....

It was Middle English, she said, the ancestor of Shakespearean English and the language Chaucer wrote in. We took turns reading aloud from Chaucer's Prologue to the ''Canterbury Tales.'' When we got to the ''gat-toothed'' Wife of Bath, no one knew what ''gat-toothed'' meant.

''Can anyone guess?'' Miss Weston asked. She waited, scanned the class, and then looked straight at me.

''Catherine is 'gat-toothed,' '' she said.

Every pair of eyes zeroed in on my mouth. At 15, I found that space between my front teeth sufficiently humiliating without having the attention of the class focused upon it. It was like having the elastic in your underpants snap and having them fall around your ankles.

I must have forgiven her because when I was in college, I wrote a letter in care of a Mrs. Weston on North Buffum Street in Milwaukee, who I thought was her mother. I figured it would be forwarded. Instead, it was returned with a letter from a Mrs. Weston who said she never had a daughter who taught English.

Maybe you think I wasn't embarrassed when I visualized a stranger reading that letter. It was all about Miss Weston being the best teacher I ever had, how she had awakened my sensitivity, had lighted that divine spark -- flowery stuff like that. It's just as well it came back.

But I'd like to think that in this instance at least, ''Aprille with his schowres'' -- my embarrassment at being called ''gat-toothed'' -- was engendering the ''flour,'' my love of learning.

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