Saturday 1 – Monday 3 October 2011
This is a work of fiction. Apologies for the length.
There comes a point in time when the teacher has nothing left to teach, and the student takes over. At least, that’s what my mom always told me, although, to this day I’ve never really understood why she would continue to tell me this throughout her life. She was a teacher, and she loved her job. She retired at eighty-four but still kept tutoring the kids from the local school who didn’t quite have enough smarts to make it through to graduation. They liked her, and she loved them. Education was her whole life.
Teaching meant more to her, I sometimes thought, than us kids. Figured she never cared much about us because she spent so much time at work, and with them. Talk at the dinner table was always about how we were doing in school – which she already knew because we went to the same school that she worked at – and how the kids in her classes were doing. My pop was always quiet, never interrupting her when she spoke about the job. There was no point. She’d talk over the top of him anyway.
I remember vividly what it was like when she’d eventually come home from work, arms full of books and papers that would at first be put on the dining table, and then later transferred to the coffee table in the living room. Hours would go by, and she’d sit marking book after book, paper after paper, all the while keeping an eye on us kids to make sure that we were also doing our homework. Somewhere in between marking and scolding us for our laziness, she’d manage to throw something together for dinner before pop got home. I expect she was so skilled at doing lots of things at once, in part, because she was a teacher. But that was her – a million things on the go all at the one time.
And I remember one day in particular. She brought one of the school quarterbacks, Dean Cooper, home with her. Big tough kid who looked like he’d eat you for breakfast, and on more than one occasion, that’s what he did to my friends. Made a mess of them too. Only, when he came to our house, he wasn’t so tough. He was quiet, reserved, a little shy. He even said hello to us. Had good manners too – waited to be invited in, waited to be invited to sit, said please and thank you. Not how you expect the big school quarterback to be.
Mom told us kids to sit at the table and start our homework. We didn’t really need to be told. We knew the routine pretty well. She told Dean to sit next to me, and she got our afterschool snacks ready and put some down in front of that great lug too. He looked as if he’d never seen cookies and milk before.
‘I’ll eat it if you don’t want to,’ my little sister said to him. He laughed, but she was serious, and looked at him, pout on her face when he did so. She was almost devastated when he took his first bite of a cookie. I guess you had to taste mom’s cookies to understand why Lily wanted extras so bad.
Us kids all quietened down while we did our homework. I think Dean felt a little uneasy that we’d all know why he had come home with mom. After all, he was a star quarterback. If it got out that he needed extra tutoring, he’d probably have been a laughing stock. But mom wouldn’t accept any of the smart attitudes that the players had. She didn’t accept it from us, so she sure as heck wasn’t going to accept it from them, and she told him so before she told him to get out his book.
It was a small, cream covered book that I instantly knew. He sheepishly pulled it from his bag and slid it across the table to mom. Out of the corner of my eye, I recognised it. Shakespeare’s Macbeth. It was understandable why he was here now. Not a lot of people can cope with Shakespeare. It sounds strange to say it now, but that was something that mom insisted we all be able to read.
‘Shakespeare,’ she said to me, ‘is a classic. And all educated people should read the classics.’ Apparently, she wanted her kids to be educated because we were reading Shakespeare years before we got to high school.
She picked up Dean’s copy of the book and examined it, cover-to-cover, page-by-page, before putting it back on the table in front of him.
‘You haven’t even opened this book, young man,’ she spoke to him not as a teacher or tutor, but as she did to us when we had done something to disappoint her.
‘Mr. Allen gave us a copy of a page from it in class. I . . . I couldn’t understand a word of it. So what’s the point in opening the book, ma’am?’ Dean lowered his head in shame. Mom’s tone of voice had the desired effect.
‘The point, young man, is to learn. Do you want to be ignorant all of your life, or do you want to know things, be able to talk with educated people who will have no reason to look down on you because you can carry your own when you’re around them?
His response made me snicker, and for that I received one of my mom’s looks.
‘Ma’am, I won’t amount to anything other than a quarterback, and that’s if I’m lucky. If I get a scholarship to college, I can get picked up by a professional team and make more money in a week than your educated people make in a year.’
‘Well,’ she said to him, ‘at least you don’t suffer from illusions of grandeur. As for your education, I’m sure we can improve your prospects. Open up to the first page, and while you’re at it, get out a pen and your notebook. I’ll make a scholar out of you yet, Mr. Cooper.’
Dean Cooper, quarterback, came to our house every week. Macbeth was something that he just couldn’t get a handle on. I think Shakespeare was something that Dean couldn’t get a handle on. He struggled every week, trying to read the text, my siblings and I often snickering at him under our breath. If mom had seen us, or known that we were mocking Dean because of his lack of education, she surely would have disciplined us. She was like that. Hated people making fun of others’ lack of education.
‘Some people in our world,’ she’d say, ‘aren’t as privileged as you. They don’t have the right to attend school and get an education. They don’t have the right to better themselves. They are not to be looked down upon. They are to be lifted up, helped, and shown how to educate themselves in this oppressive darkness that they’re forced in to.’
As kids, we didn’t really care about that, and for us, going to school never seemed like it was a privilege. More of a burden – all that class work, followed by endless hours of homework. That was not a privilege.
For weeks, and weeks, it seemed that Dean wouldn’t get the idea behind the Bard, and he was becoming increasingly angry by his lack of progress. My mom, being her usual self, refused to get flustered by his outbursts. Instead, she calmed him down and began all over again, looking at the play from a different angle. She always found another way of teaching it to him, and it must have paid off.
Dean came to our home on an unscheduled visit one week, a broad smile across his face.
‘Ma’am,’ he said to mom, ‘thank you. I passed the test on the play. No, I didn’t just pass it. I aced it.’
Mom was beaming just as wide as Dean. I think she felt he was her greatest success. A kid who didn’t think he was worth anything other than being a football player, who suddenly saw in one small academic success, that there was more to the world than what he knew – that’s the kind of challenge she lived for.
She continued to tutor him until his graduation, which she attended because he invited her. She told me years later that it was an honor to have been invited to Dean Cooper’s graduation. ‘He turned out to be a fine young man,’ she told me. I remember shrugging my shoulders and thinking ‘so what?’ It wasn’t until years later that I understood what my mom had done for Dean.
Then, in ninety-one, mom had a car accident. She spent months in hospital, at first in a medically induced coma in I.C.U, then in rehab. She had to learn to do everything all over again. Dean Cooper, now a designer label wearing C.E.O of some company that was making millions a year, visited her every week, a ratty old copy of Macbeth in hand, and the impeccable manners he’d arrived with at our door all those years ago. Once a week, Dean Cooper, former high school quarterback, read to my mom from the classics and reminisced about the years that she had tutored him. He brought her back to life.
When she passed a year later, he was the first to arrive at the funeral, was head pallbearer, and the last to leave the wake. Many of her past students attended that day, and many of them had made long journeys from other parts of the country just to be there for her, the way she was there for them. If she’d been alive to see it, she would have reprimanded them for making her cry. They stood alongside us that day, each one of them like another of her children. She’d made a difference to everyone there. And as a final mark of respect to the woman who had helped them through school, each one carried a copy of a classic, all proudly displayed and many copies tattered, torn, and well read.