Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Available Surfaces III: Mrs. Quack and Miss Cuckoo

Lay on, Macduff,/ And damn'd be him that first cries, "Hold, enough!" --William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act 5 scene 8

Mrs. Quack sat at her desk in front of the class, striking a classic Quack pose of cynical boredom. From a perspective of many decades on, I realize that she was a relatively unusual specimen: a country cynic. Real cynicism is rare among country people, who generally can’t afford the luxury of denial.

But Mrs. Quack had, so to say, come in from the cold. She still lived in the country, but she did not work on the farm where she lived; every day she got in her old Ford and drove to town to teach sixth graders. How she came to such a pass I haven’t a clue, but the situation was unfortunate for everyone involved.

Any sixth grader in her class could have quickly told you one thing about Mrs. Quack: she did not care, at all, for sixth graders. Sixth graders, to her, were ridiculous creatures, too close to childhood to be taken seriously, but too close to puberty to be idealized and adored.

To be fair, we were, like all captive groups of eleven year olds, a tough room. Adolescence has its horrors, and those are well known; in the coming years we would all turn into monsters of one kind or another. Preadolescence is less obvious, but it has its profound discomforts. At eleven, one is an adolescent of adolescence. An adolescent ignorantly desires to die and be reborn as an adult; a preadolescent abysmally wants to die and be reborn as an adolescent. O to be thirteen! To attend a prom! To have real pimples!

Mrs. Quack observed all that, daily, for many years. By the time I came to her class, her hair was white (pinkish rather than bluish white, an important distinction in those days) and her soul darkened from overexposure to the peculiar hormone-scented sixth grade classroom. Whether her cynicism was natural to her or had been adopted as the only defense mechanism she could muster in her circumstances I can’t say. I can see, though, that to have been a failure for so long at a job that would never call your hand could lead to a cynical outlook. Her failure had begun on the first day she stepped into a sixth grade classroom, for teaching sixth graders is hard, and Mrs. Quack was deeply, even fundamentally lazy.
Later on, in junior high and high school, I had teachers who, under similar conditions, had turned vicious. Mrs. Quack was too indolent to muster meanness; instead, she cultivated an amused mien that ill concealed the fact that, really, she couldn’t be bothered to give a good goddamn about much of anything.


Our backwater little school had, in an effort to innovate, decided that from fifth grade on, students should work with more than one teacher, to prepare the way for junior high, wherein one had one teacher for each subject. Accustoming students to moving from room to room, from aegis to aegis, would toughen us up for what was to come.

Our school had two classrooms for every grade. My class was comprised of about 40 students, like most other classes before and after, so this system worked reasonably well. For the first four grades, then, I was installed with 19 of my peers in one room with one teacher (Mrs. Honey, first grade; Mrs. Bright, second grade; Mrs. Dim, third grade; Mrs. Nobody, fourth grade) but in fifth grade, I had two teachers, Mrs. Goodcop and Mrs. Badcop. Likewise in sixth grade, my time was divided between Mrs. Quack and Miss Cuckoo.

Like Mrs. Quack, Miss Cuckoo had white hair, but it was neither pinkish nor bluish: it was simply white, and straight, cut in a sort of pageboy style. Mrs. Quack clearly enjoyed the blandishments of the beauty parlor, and came forth clipped and curled and colored. Miss Cuckoo’s style was more au natural. She verged, in fact, on the unkempt, and likely it was only peer pressure (intense in our little community with regard to matters of personal appearance and hygiene) that kept her from a witchy disreputability.

Where Mrs. Quack was completely transparent, Miss Cuckoo was a mystery. I find nothing at all in my memory banks about her background or her circumstances, beyond the fact that, unlike every other teacher in my elementary school, all of whom were female, her title was “Miss,” not “Mrs.” That alone was suggestive of many gradients of difference, but what it meant none of us were capable, at the age of eleven, of penetrating; nor, frankly, did we try. We were not being schooled in empathy, and therefore we possessed none. All we knew about Miss Cuckoo was that she was crazy, and that seemed to be all we needed to know.


Miss Cuckoo’s insanity, if that is what it was, took so benevolent a form that she expended an entire adulthood as a public school teacher. If her professional superiors or peers ever discussed her strangeness with her, I am not aware of it, though of course I wouldn’t be. When I started first grade, Miss Cuckoo’s assignment was as a teacher of first graders, but I landed in the classroom of the kindly Mrs. Honey, and so did not encounter Miss Cuckoo at close range except on the playground, where from time to time she exhibited forms of exuberance that later on might have seemed peculiar, but to a first grader was simply part of the scenery.

By the time I entered sixth grade—why I do not know--Miss Cuckoo had been reassigned. She and Mrs. Quack shared responsibility for the sixth graders. Mrs. Quack was in charge of reading and math, Miss Cuckoo of social studies and anything that fell into the category of the arts.

Had Miss Cuckoo been my own age, she would have grown, I think, into a very happy hippie girl, smoking weed, listening to forbidden music, and dancing naked in meadows at rock concerts. Had she been born in late nineteenth-century England, she would have been a free spirit and consorted with Pre-Raphaelites, Decadents, and Symbolists; she would have inhaled opium, sipped laudanum and absinthe, and posed in the nude for Rossetti, who would have rendered her as a medieval maiden garlanded in wildflowers.

Unfortunately for Miss Cuckoo, she had been born in the wrong place and time. She had an affinity with Duse and Isadora Duncan, I believe, but she was stuck in remote small town America, and by now, as she was beginning to fade, in the 1950s and early 1960s. To us she, like Mrs. Quack, seemed impossibly old—both of them were in their sixties, as old as our grandparents!—and yet she also seemed the youngest child in the room. Most of the time, in fact, she gave every appearance of being terrified of us, as if a five year old had been put in charge of a group of children six years older. Sometimes all that fell away, and then, as she became more manic, she became eccentric and incomprehensible, like a child on a sugar high.

Of the general run of her pedagogy, I have absolutely no memory. This is remarkable, since I can remember, for better or worse, particulars of both style and substance from every other elementary school teacher I studied under. Mrs. Cuckoo, however, has left no trace in my recollection in those terms, and I can only conclude that this is true because she had absolutely nothing to impart. Some alcoholics are maintenance drinkers; Mrs. Cuckoo was a maintenance teacher. She spoke to us, read to us, lectured at us, to pass the time merely. This was done not in a spirit of boredom but under the lash of fear: she must pass the day in order to escape us.

On the other hand, I well remember that from time to time she would suddenly, and for no discernible reason, burst into song. Her voice was that of an aging woman, but it was not unbeautiful for that. The songs she sang she made up, to all appearances, on the spot. Sometimes they would come from some chance phrase encountered in a book, or uttered by her, or (horror of horrors to the child so afflicted) by one of us, but her song would quickly lose its relation to any external thing. She would dance up and down the aisles of the classroom singing, an expression of ecstasy transfiguring her otherwise tortured face; if she happened to be wearing a scarf, as she was prone to do, she would unwind it from her neck and wave it gracefully around her head in an expressionist dance that I now understand had its origin in the 1920s.

She also had a few set pieces, one of which quickly became famous, or notorious, among all the children of the school. She would have us clear the center of the room of desks, forming a circle around the edges of the room; she would drag out of some closet a tall wooden folding ladder. Then she would perform a musical skit of her own devising. Based on the old gospel song “Jacob’s Ladder,” it consisted of twelve verses, one for each year of our school experience, and a chorus. Her ladder had twelve steps, and for each verse she would ascend one step.

I have forgotten the substance of the verses, but the chorus is burned into my memory, as we children were required to sing along. It went

We are climbing the educational ladder
We are climbing the educational ladder
We are climbing the educational ladder
Every day of our lives

I did learn lessons in prosody from this composition. “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder” flows along quite well, but substituting “the educational” for “Jacob’s” causes an elocutionary train wreck—six syllables where two should go--that even Miss Cuckoo negotiated very poorly. And by the twelfth verse, Miss Cuckoo would be perched at the very top of the ladder, doing her best simultaneously to stay balanced there, to maintain some semblance of modesty (she was, thank goodness, enamored of long skirts), and to sing at the top of her lungs. By this time we children would be exhausted with laughing at her, and would simply hum along with her in a kind of comatose disgust, for this performance was repeated erratically but regularly every two weeks or so.
The Educational Ladder was the blueprint of our education; we were on rung six of twelve, and we were so sick of it already that we thought jumping off a bridge might be preferable.

And so we passed our year, shuttled back and forth daily between the Country of Cuckoo and the Queendom of Quack.


Fox, my “best friend,” was vigilant. I put “best friend” in quotes here, because we were not really so much best friends as a pair of drowning people thrown together in a maelstrom and trying to survive. He was without a doubt the most intelligent person in the room, but he was also the most tortured; he was the victim of an atrocious family, abused by a drunken violent father. His response to that abuse was to embrace it as an excuse for every kind of failure, but it made his senses keen. He gravitated to me because I was also intelligent, and because he envied me the relative stability of my family life. In return he tortured me, psychologically, in every way he could devise, which, as he was very bright, were many. He was determined, for one thing, to cure me of my innocence, especially where grownups were concerned.

“Psst,” he said, “hey, Turtle,” meaning me: “Watch. She’s about to do it again.”

We were supposed to be working on a writing exercise. Fox and I had already finished; we were both quick studies. Most of the other students were still struggling on, gripping their pencils white-knuckled, and sweating. I was, as usual, using my spare time daydreaming. Fox, as usual, spent his keeping watch.

“Do what?” I said.

“Just look.”

Mrs. Quack was grading our arithmetic homework. We had handed in our papers folded once vertically, as she required, with our names written on the outside. She had her grade book out, and was checking off names, consulting each paper by glancing at it without opening it. From time to time she looked out at us, smirking. “Not done yet, Kitten?” she’d say to one slow girl. “Christmas is coming.” Once she got up and crept over to a child who had his head down on her desk; she gave the boy a light tap with her ruler. “Sleep on, Macbeth,” she said to him when he looked up, confused. “That’s Shakespeare, you know. Have you read Shakespeare? No? Then finish your work.” Years later, when I read Macbeth and found the line she was misquoting, I just shook my head and thought: typical.

“I first caught her doing it last week,” Fox said, as Mrs. Quack sat back down and resumed her marking.
“I’ve watched her every day since. She does it every time. Every time.

“Does what?” I said. Fox irritated the hell out of me most of the time, but very often if I paid attention to him I learned something important beyond the garbage he tended to spew. And just then I saw what he meant.
Having finished tallying who had turned in a homework paper—but without ever having opened a single one to check the work—Mrs. Quack tossed the bundle of assignments into the waste can.

“Does that,” Fox said. He was on the verge of exploding with laughter; he hissed like a manic teakettle.
“You saw what she did? You saw?”

I had seen. Her act felt like a blow to the side of the head. It was a gross, flagrant act of malpractice, but worse, it was a betrayal. I had spent perhaps an hour on my math homework, getting it right, recopying it neatly. All that had counted was my name on the outside of the paper.

Fox was jubilant. “You see what this means?”

I saw it meant Mrs. Quack was a terrible teacher, perhaps even evil in her own stunted way. But that’s not all Fox understood.

“Look here, Turtle. Check my writing assignment.”

I looked over his shoulder. His paper was blank: he had done nothing. He pulled the blank paper out of his notebook, folded it, and wrote his name on it.

“She’ll be taking up the papers any minute,” he said. “This is all she gets from me.”

I looked down at my own notebook. I was, that year, favoring a certain brand of notebook paper. It was lined in green instead of the standard blue, and it was also edged in emerald green; I liked it because I was going through a phase of obsession with Frank Baum’s Oz books. I had read every one of them, and was heartbroken that there were no more, so every afternoon when I got home from school, I got the notebook down and added a few pages to my own addition to the series. I loved my notebook, I loved its Emerald City edges. I even liked doing my homework, because it meant I got to write. It didn’t matter to me so much what I wrote. Words, numbers, it didn’t matter: I loved the work I did, and I took pride in it.

But now something had changed. A contract was broken. The notebook was compromised, the act of writing betrayed. I had written a page of proper sentences, as assigned. Now I turned that page; I pulled out a blank one; I folded it over and signed it. Never again, that school year, would I do it any other way, nor would Fox, and our delinquency would never once be detected.

Across the hall, Miss Cuckoo was singing: We are climbing the Educational ladder. We were up to the sixth rung of the ladder. Miss Cuckoo’s voice danced over the prosodic error that was the word “educational.” Mrs. Quack sighed at her desk in her boredom.

I sat in my chair, all that day, in stunned and sullen disillusionment. In some ways, I am sitting there still. Sleep on, Macbeth. Your sentence is written, but your page is blank. Sleep on.

[*Reposted from The Best American Poetry Blog]

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful. One of the most engaging mini-memoirs of adolescence I've read.