When I decided to enter the noble profession of teaching, based entirely on one reading of the Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, I was in for a bit of a shock. NYC in the early 80s was nothing like Edinburgh in the 30s. Nor did I have a sneaking admiration for Mussolini. I was not at all in my prime, nor did I have set. I was not a fascist nor did I implore any of my five year old charges to fight in the Spanish Civil war, which was well over, but even if it hadn’t been, I was a pacifist.
I became a teacher as well because my good friend Buzzy told me not be a journalist, which is what I really wanted to be. He wrote on faded yellowing typing paper, with the tops of the e’s coloured in, that to be a journalist was to a wasted form of protoplasm. Or protoplasmic life. I can’t remember. The letter was lost and Buzzy is dead.
To be a teacher was to be noble. I saved that letter and read it over and over because I didn’t feel I had a gift for teaching , but I believed everything Buzzy said.
So I slogged through teacher training college. I hated it. I did my training in a school of very badly behaved children, who all thought I was only a year or two older than they were. I felt a resurgence of my old school phobia, which was based on the notion that I would come home and my mother would be dead, and I would be an orphan. My dad had been dead for some time. But it’s really bad news to have school phobia if you are a teacher. The TV show Roots had come out a few years back, so all the kids had complicated African names that were very difficult to pronounce. Well you could,as a white girl with a mid Atlantic accent (Liverpool and New York upbrinatging, but that’s another story) but not without sounding like an asshole. Lots of Kuntes. That one was easy.
Once I got my certificate, I moved to NY and applied for a job at first as an assistant teacher. Having my own class from the get go was just too scary. It was a little private school on the corner of Bleeker and Avenue of the Americas.
it had a quaint name, like Little House on the prairie. I believe it was expensive, but as an assistant I was not paid well. Bob Dylan sent his kids there. But not at the time I was there. Lorraine Bracco ( the shrink in the Sopranos) her kid was in my class and very beautiful and intelligent and wilful. By the end if the year, Lorraine was preggers with Harvey Keitel. I have since heard much later that all ended in tears. But Lorraine was incredibly glamorous and wa bi lingual. I wanted to be her after Jean Brodie. At 23 I had not yet developed a sense of self.
At the school, we had mainly rich kids from the Village, a few from uptown. My own commute was hell. First from Queens, then from Brooklyn, it took forever. if you want a glimpse of purgatory, try riding the F or E train between Jackson Heights and Queens Plaza. Takes forever. I had to be there at eight or before to supervise the early kids whose parents worked all the time. But there was one kid, I can’t remember her name, her mum and dad were split up but they did the right on shared parenting thing. I remember the mother, who was always in a dash to get to Gristedes,a shop to my mind that never closed, but the dad was a hippy guy, lived upstate, and one day brought in what HE SAID was Praying Mantis, or Mantid, depending on how into insects you were. I was the opposite of being into insects. All I knew from my apartments was that roaches had their own motels. They checked in, but never checked out.That and all that was in our cleaning closet was Tide, a washing powder, and Mr. Clean, a big gay looking guy who killed germs, and Raid, a spray roach killer that didn’t really work on the masses. They needed Napalm.
But back to the supposed Praying Mantis. The hippy said he found upstate and was donating it to the class. He said it was best to put in into a vivarium, which is like a posh hotel for insects. He said if we killed it, we wouldn’t go to jail but would be given a stern warning. He explained that the it ate other insects, disguised itself as a leaf, and it’s legs looked like they were praying. But most of the parents of the kids were militant atheists so praying as a look, as a concept, was lost on them.
Now you have to know these things are masters of disguise. They blend in, turn themselves into sticks or leaves, whatever surrounds them, hard to know where that stuff ends and the insect begins.Story of my life, even before I read Metamorphosis. So mainly it stood perfectly still, so I assumed it was dead from the get go, or petrified. But as no one had any insects to hand, we fed it some McDonalds and it it hadn’t been dead already, it was after the bits of salady bits from the Big Mac.
We had to have a vote to name it. It was going to be Cyndi Lauper, but one girl asserted that name had already been taken, by a girl on MTV. The boys thought it might be a boy and that would be stupid name, but it went on and on so we just went for Cyndi.
And then it died. A boy in the class had just lost his mother to cancer so he had experienced death close up and personal. He became incontinent, literally. The others had no experience of it so we had to have another meeting to discuss the death of Cyndi and a suitable burial. But to me, it was never there in the first place, so well disguised was it.
We put Cyndi in a shoebox with some leaves, twigs and bits of salad. We walked in a little funeral procession to Washington Square Park, the entrance where the dealers sell oregano as loose joints and stupid Bridge and Tunnel people pretend to get high, man, in like the Village, man.
Words were said in sad, funeral tones. But there was not lots to say about Cyndi, she just never moved or talked or was maybe never alive. She blended in. That was her talent. We dug a hole in a grassy bit near the playground, put the shoe box in and tried to look deep and meaningful.
When we got back to class, the kids had lunch and a nap and when they got up, they drew Cyndi related pictures, mostly brown and green impressionistic scrawls. Except one kid. His name was Darren and he was cute as cute can be and a little chubby. He drew a picture of a whale, a really good picture, swimming in a very blue sea. The whale was green. I kneeled down and said I liked all the colour, and what did he want to call the picture. He said “Darren the whale, swimming at a fast speed”
When the school year was over, all the kids got their work back in big folders, but I stole that drawing. It was so life affirming, so very wonderful. I just know Darren is all grown up now, but probably still swimming at a fast speed.