catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 10, Num 17 :: 2011.09.30 — 2011.10.13


Life changer

She was ill, recovering from surgery, when the fall semester began.  Thus an eleventh grade English class on tragedy in literature was begun by a nightmare of a substitute — disliked kids (we always know!), humorless, unable to recall when she had last been inspired so awash in cynicism was she.  The true teacher asked that each of us tape (it was 1964) our responses to a series of questions — name, favorite book, most hated book, what we were reading right now, what made us laugh and cry — so that she might get a sense of us prior to her return. 

That return was unannounced and came a month into the term.  But on a Monday, a tiny woman dressed in a flowing purple skirt and linen blouse and with a nimbus of curly grey hair walked into our raucous classroom.  She spoke not a word but opened her well-worn, multicolored bag and drew out a stack of poster board-backed pictures.  These were etchings cut from the New York Times Book Review, which many of us soon found ourselves reading.  Some were but index card-sized; some almost legal pad-sized.  She went around the room placing these pictures in the trays of the blackboards.  At last she spoke. “I’m sorry to be late.  Please get up from your desks and walk around taking a careful look at every picture.  Then do it again.  Let the picture that is yours pick you.”

And we did so, expressing our incredulity in corner-of-the-eye looks at one another, but oddly saying not a word.  When we had all chosen, or been chosen, and had found our seats again, she said, “One week from today, you will turn in a poem, a short story, a play or a novel based upon interaction with your picture. Let it be your best work, please.” Dislocated by an odd mix of delight and anguish, we went to work.

And then we turned to Macbeth and Oedipus Rex and Death of a Salesman and Crime and Punishment and “The Overcoat.” Each week we discussed how the tragic aspect of life was seen in the events unfolding in that era of rapid change.  She was unflinching in her high demands, unyielding to excuses for shoddy work, unendingly compassionate towards that which made our hearts ache.  She assigned us attendance at a protest, made us write about the weaknesses of our favorite book and the strengths of our most detested, sent us off to the movies at the local art house, challenged every trite sentiment or ill thought out opinion. She laughed hard and wept at the sad or beautiful.  I had learned to read at age four; she taught me to read eleven years later.  She taught critical thinking before any of us had ever heard the term. She was, in the words of Ireneus, “the glory of God, a human being fully alive.”

Mrs. Jean Schrager, my finest teacher.  Long since gone, often remembered, always loved. 

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