Teachers – Ron Marken
Ron Marken @ 2020
Grade I, Camrose, AB
Grade 1A, 1945
Back row, second from the left, between pillars, with the cap, Joe. Back row, third from the left, with a cap, Dave. Back row, far left, Rupert. Second from the right, me.
Third row, white hair, white shirt, suspenders, Manfred. Front row centre, braids, Joy
Front row, far right, checked coat, Marion
Our town didn’t have a Kindergarten. It also had a rule: To enter Grade One in September, 1944, a child had to be six before December 31st.
I missed the cut by two weeks — January 15th — so when I started school the next year, I was nearly seven. My dad was a high school teacher, but my mother and he were not home-schoolers. Dad didn’t want to jump-start me, thus sending an over-prepared know-it-all to an unsuspecting first grade teacher. I was desperate to read and write, but I began Grade 1 as a famished, illiterate kid.
From Grade 1 to Grade 12, I walked to school more than 3000 times, but the only walk I remember, from beginning to end, was Tuesday, Sept 4, 1945, so excited was I to start learning something. Past the Madison’s house, where I mowed their lawn every week for a quarter. Through the yard of the church. Past the Ford dealership, Hoveland’s Funeral Parlour, the Post Office, and Groves’ Drugstore. Then kitty-corner to Trudeau’s Dry Cleaners, past the Bible Institute. Seven familiar blocks took me to The Cottage School, a white, cosy, two-room building with a verandah, in a tiny, fenced playground and a miniature ball-diamond. It looked as inviting as my Auntie Gertrude’s house.
The Cottage School was reserved for Grade 1. Across the street from us, the John Russell School handled the other elementary grades, 2-5. The Cottage School was divided in half, with Grade 1A in the east room and Grade 1B in the west. We were “1A.”
No one was allowed to enter the school right away that morning. We fooled around in the play yard until a young, red-haired woman came out and rang a cow-bell. She wore a dark green skirt, a white blouse, and a pale green cardigan — with pearls. Miss Lillian Robinson.
“Come in now, boys and girls,” she called in a bright voice.
Once inside, we saw a full wall of windows facing the playground and the sunrises. The room was painted green and white. “Lots of green here,” I thought. It’s always been my favourite colour. A large map of Canada hung next to a bookcase crammed with books, with a glass door. Hundreds of books. On the bottom shelf lay a softball, a bat, and a catcher’s mitt. I couldn’t take my eyes off the books. I remember the smell, too.
Whenever I visited a friend or went to a birthday party, I was always struck by how my house’s smells differed from those of other people’s houses. It was mainly the cooking, of course. The herbs, spices, sauces, beverages, and cuts of meat varied so much from culture to culture, family to family, that their aromas were always distinct. In some homes, the smells were almost as intolerable as my grandmother’s kitchen when she boiled pig’s heads to make her nauseous head cheese. No house smelled as lovely as my mother’s kitchen.
In a Grade One schoolroom, though, cooking smells were not a factor, having been absorbed by dozens of little sweaters and trousers, dozens of little hair-dos and rubber boots. What hits you as you walk through the school door, though, is the smell of Little Kids, children with a wide range of attitudes and commitments to personal hygiene. Several came from homes with no running water, and outdoor privies. Some had to wear the same clothes day after day, as laundry was sometimes a difficult and clumsy expense. The children ranged all the way from dirt poor to wealthy. Rupert was the youngest of ten brothers. They helped their father on their hog farm. There’s nothing you could do about the aromatics of a hog farm — except put up with it and say, “It’s the smell of money.” They had no running water and baths were irregular.
Rupert’s clothing was impeccably clean, but the poor fellow wore “felt boots.” These were knee-high boots molded from half-inch thick grey felt. As he left home, Rupert would pull on the felt boots, slip on a pair of rubbers, and head for the school-bus stop.
Felt boots serve a triple function: they keep your feet warm, they are marginally waterproof, and you don’t need to wear socks. After a few weeks of sweat, no socks, and irregular baths, however, felt boots ripen. After a week or two of Rupert’s wearing his felt boots in the classroom, Miss Robinson was driven to asking him to take the boots off and stand them in the cloakroom beside the rest of the winter footwear. Within ten minutes of his return to his desk, the air in the room was unbreathable.
A maiden aunt of mine once remarked – rudely – that my little brother’s room “smelled like feet.” Everyone knows that smell. From a felt boot, however, the smell is amplified a hundred-fold. On a day never to be forgotten, Miss Robinson stopped asking Rupert to take his boots off. She was left with the impossible job of convincing Rupert to move his desk next to an open window at the back of the room and to stay there while she found ways to work changes in Rupert’s bath schedule.
No one ever navigated a more delicate diplomatic path. And it worked. We were all so grateful we didn’t even tease him, and Rupert eventually realized that the familiar smells of home he brought to school every day were causing dismay to his classmates and friends. His dad bought each of his sons a pair of galoshes in the spring, and the olfactory assaults ended. In Grade 10, Rupert was known to joke about his felt boot days.
We registered ourselves on the first day of school by telling the teacher our names and our parents’ names. Manfred was the exception. His family were “displaced persons,” German war refugees who spoke no English. His mother brought Manfred to the Cottage School, registered him, then sat against the back wall for the rest of the day. Wearing lederhosen, Manfred was so shy and stressed he wet himself when he sat down in his assigned desk. Small towns being what they are, Manfred never quite lived down that terrible first day, teased mercilessly, even after 12 years in Camrose, where he eventually became one of the town’s most highly-decorated young scholars.
Years later, we learned Manfred had survived WWII fire-bombings, suffering terrors the rest of us couldn’t imagine. Why wouldn’t he be anxious among raucous children who couldn’t help seeing him as “the enemy”?
After high school, Manfred got out of Camrose as far as his scholarships would take him. He moved to California, earned three degrees at CalTech, and spent his life as an award-winning sound engineer and designer in Hollywood. In his 2013 obituary, Manfred’s co-workers used the word “love” several times.
There were thirty of us in that Grade 1 room. Once we had found our seats, I sat down, buzzing with anticipation. First, our teacher said, “Good morning, boys and girls. My name is Miss Robinson.” She printed her name on the board, sounding it out, phonetically. Later, she taught us to read phonetically, too.
She paused. “Now you wish me a good morning.” We murmured, “Good morning, Miss Robinson.” Someone behind me said “Robertson,” but the sky didn’t fall.
When she introduced roll-call, Miss R instructed us to reply, “Present,” in “firm” voices when she read our names. In that context, “roll” was a new and ambiguous word, the first of hundreds of new words. She asked us to stand up straight and salute the flag. The Union Jack hung over the blackboard, and we all learned to chant, “I salute the flag, the emblem of my country. To thee I pledge my love and loyalty.” I loved saluting, because my favourite uncle taught me how to do it. Uncle George was in the RCAF. Dave, Amos, and I played soldiers in the bushes on weekends, so we saluted each other then. But until September 4, 1945, I’d never saluted a flag. We saluted the flag every morning, from Grade 1 to Grade 9.
Before we could sit down again, Miss Robinson walked over to the piano. Enthusiastically, she played and sang “God Save the King.” We more or less joined in. Up to that point, school was starting to look less than inspiring: stand, sit alphabetically, sing, chant, sit, be quiet.
And then it happened.
“Once upon a time!”
Without warning, Miss Robinson spun around on her piano stool and gave us a big grin. She threw her hands into the air, waved them all about, and shouted, “Once Upon a Time! There was a boy named Jack.” We froze to our desks. What. Is. Happening?
Then, Miss Robinson told us a story. She didn’t read it. She performed it: “Jack and the Beanstalk,” with extravagant gestures. She made her arms climb the beanstalk. She talked in a Jack-voice. She mooed. She talked in a Mother-voice. She mimed a Giant, stalking up and down the aisles of the Cottage School, muttering “Fee. Fie. Fo. Fum. I …smell… the… BLOOD… of… an… Englishman!” We didn’t know how to react, but everyone was grinning, even giggling.
All my life, grownups had read to me. The Bible. Heidi. Swiss Family Robinson. Bambi. Pinocchio. And they read fairy tales. Read them. Hans Christian Anderson. Proper Norwegian troll tales. But, stern and buttoned Norwegians as they were, no one had ever enacted a fairy tale for me, by heart, and loudly. The rhythms of the words, their music and vividness enchanted me. Miss Robinson chanted; I was smitten. Miss Robinson launched me into school life by taking thirty kids who had just come through World War II on a verbal field trip, flinging wide the doors of our imaginations.
“Jack’s mother gave him a gigantic hug and kissed him all over his forehead.”
“‘Mom! Ah c’mon,’ Jack whispered”
Miss Robinson collapsed on the floor like the beanstalk and died like the giant. We were enthralled.
“Tonight before you go to sleep, I want you to ask yourself one question: ’Why did Miss Robinson give us that story?’ We will talk about it tomorrow. And we will also learn to spell some words, like ‘bean,’ ‘cow,’ ’Jack,’ ‘mother.’ Next week we start learning to read — from this book.”
She held up Dick and Jane. We didn’t know the book was a tired old warhorse, filled with dubious lessons about gender-stereotyping among middle-class, urban, white people. I just wanted to get my teeth into it and read something. Anything.
Next morning, she repeated her assignment: “Why did I tell you that story? Think about my question again. What did you decide last night? What do you think?”
“I’m going to ask some of you, now.” She paused. “And by the way, there are no wrong answers.”
No wrong answers? What kind of unusual freedom is this? What if Dave says something like, “You told a story because you forget to bring your text book”? What if Joe says, “I dunno”?
Miss Robinson walked to the back of the room and smiled at little Joe, sitting at the very end of the last row. She hunkered down in the aisle so her face was level with Joe’s. Softly, she asked, “What do you think, Joseph? Why did I tell you the story yesterday?”
Joe gulped and looked out the window longingly. No one had ever asked his opinion about anything. His dad repaired radiators and recycled dead car batteries. Then Joe murmured a question into his chest, “Do what your Mum says or you could get dead . . . ?”
“That’s an excellent answer, Joseph. Very good! I think you have discovered the story’s most important problem: What kind of a boy disobeys his starving mother and spends all her money on a handful of magic beans?”
Joe blushed and looked out the window again.
She strolled to the front of the class and looked at little-bright-star Marion. “Joseph has given us something to think about, Marion. What do you think Jack’s mother said to him when he came down the beanstalk with all that gold?”
Marion hadn’t expected that question. “Did she say, ‘Thank you’. . . ?” she asked, eyes wide.
“I’m sure she did, Marion. After all Jack had saved the family.”
Miss Robinson looked over Marion’s shoulder, zeroing in on Rupert. “Rupert, if you were Jack’s big brother, what would you have said to him?”
“I don’t know. You’re my hero?” Rupert asked tentatively.
Before the teacher could reply, Joy raised her hand. It was the first time one of us had claimed a public space, formally.
Miss Robinson walked down the aisle and stood beside Joy. “Class,” she said sombrely, “Did you see what Joy did? She raised her hand while I was speaking.”
She turned to Joy, who was even tinier than Joe. “Look at me, dear.”
Joy looked up anxiously.
“Good for you, Joy! I’m proud of you. Raising your hand was brave. And, class, if any of you want to speak about anything. Put up your hand. We will stop what we’re doing and listen. Joy, what do you want to tell us?”
“Jack’s Mom would hug him and say, ‘Don’t ever do that again.’”
“Wise, Joy. Very wise.”
When Miss Robinson asked me, I panicked. I wanted to impress this amazing woman. I wanted to impress her with the best answer, the impressive right answer. It was my first attempt at literary criticism. And I blew it. My answer was pitiable, pathetic:
“The story told us we should never give up.”
Idiot! I’d turned Jack and the Beanstalk into an Aesop’s fable, muttering the sort of answer you hear in Sunday school, where every story has a moral.
“Very good, Ron,” Miss Robinson said, with little enthusiasm, patting my desk as she returned to the front of the room.
Then Manfred’s mother raised her hand, half-way. Miss Robinson said, “Manfred’s mother. Please. What would you like to say?”
Manfred’s mother stood up and gave an imperceptible nod. “Danke.” She thought for a moment. “I have nicht . . . good English. At home, I . . .learn . . . English with Manfred. He is a boy . . . aufgeweckt. Soon, Manfred talk English.”
“I am so happy to hear that! Thank you. Danke! I will help you any way I can. ‘Aufgeweckt’? Does that mean something like ‘clever’? And I’m sorry, I didn’t ask your name.”
“Clever. Also a German word. Jah. Gretchen. Danke.”
During our first week as “pupils” (another new word), Miss Robinson carried on an extended conversation about “Jack and the Beanstalk,” while slipping in side-lessons about pronunciation, etiquette, story-structure, the correct way to print a small b and a capital B, how to pronounce “giant” with two syllables, and how to address an adult.
She examined each of us when we went out the door in the winter. Several times, when she noticed a student bare-headed or bare-handed, Miss R managed to find a scarf or a pair of mittens from her desk drawer. The same drawer held gum and candy, a jack-knife, comic books, cap guns, and, for a reason no one could explain, a Zippo cigarette lighter and a fret saw.
Miss Robinson tried not to squirm when she listened to us speak — “Jack’n Jill wen’dup th’ hill.” Some of us came from homes where English was a second language. We talked the way our parents and grandparents talked, and most of them hadn’t worried about things like final syllables or consonants. On Fridays, she would say, “Who’s turn is it for show and tell?” One or two of us would be summoned to the front to give a shaky speech about a puppy, or a visit from Grandma, or Dad’s new car. We learned that “ain’t” and “gimme” were not the only banned words. We were not permitted to pour “malk” on our cereal, or say “ouda da way,” or give “Valentimes” cards to friends in “Febyouary.” “Tricker treat” made her wince. But for some reason, a “sumtheen” would send you to the blackboard, where you’d write and say “something” a hundred times.
Grammar lessons popped up when least expected. One spring day, Dave and I wanted to play ball at recess, but the ball and bat were locked in the big bookcase. Dave went to Miss R’s desk and said, “Me and Ron want play ball.”
“Of course, David. But you should say, ‘Ron and I.’ And, ‘please’ is nice.”
She unlocked the case, opening the glass doors wide. We looked at the ball, bat, and leather glove. She smiled at Dave and asked, “So. What do you say now?”
Dave looked at me, stricken. “Thank you? And please… Please give the ball and bat to Ron and I?” He managed a tight smile.
“Good, but that should be ‘Ron and me,’ you know.”
There was a pause before Dave cocked his head to one side, “But you just said…”
“I know it’s confusing, David. I’ll explain…”
“That’s okay,” Dave said. He turned to me, “Wanna go out and shoot some marbles?”
When I think about teaching, I keep coming back to Kieran Egan, Teaching as Story Telling: An Alternative Approach to Teaching and Curriculum in the Elementary School. But Egan published his book a quarter of a century after Miss Robinson climbed to the top of the beanstalk, slew the giant, and ignited the imaginations of thirty six-year olds.
Bureaucrats believe teaching is effective if they can measure something called “outcomes.” They love lesson planning, objectives, “experiential learning,” and assessment. Of course these things are important — if pompous — but what drives good teaching is the ancient art of storytelling. If the lesson doesn’t take the young mind deeper into the mysteries of human existence, what value can it have? In school, we learn how to do things, of course, and we acquire “skill sets” to stand us in good stead when we enter the work force to contribute to the Gross National Product. If, however, teaching is merely pragmatic, defining the value of teaching by the tired old rhyme, “To earn more, learn more,” imagination, creativity, and the delights of learning for its own sake can be stifled. Must “useless and expensive” subjects music and art programs be cancelled, as frills? Is Chaucer pointless simply because, at first glance, he is difficult?
I believe, too, that Miss Robinson knew she was teaching children who had just come through a war. Some had lost family members. Some, like Manfred, had been in the war. Some of us had regular nightmares about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. When he entered Grade 1, little Joe was destined for a life of manual labour. Miss Robinson asked him questions about literature, about ethics, about family dynamics, perhaps cracking open brand-new doors in his perception of himself and his world. As he grew into manhood, by the way, Joe the graduate engineer became a leader in the community and a philanthropic champion of education.
It’s fair and reasonable to say, “Thank you, Miss Robinson, and thank you Jack and your beanstalk.”
In Grade III, 1948, our music teacher, Miss Inez Pierce, taught us to sing “TheArkansas Traveler,” an alien song from a place so far from the John Russell School in Camrose, Alberta, we couldn’t even spell the title. We also learned a song, it might have been a hymn, about a soldier named Wolfe, ”The Maple Leaf Forever.” We mouthed the words to “Frere Jacques,” oblivious to meaning.
One afternoon, Miss Pierce demonstrated how our bodies knew instinctively how to move, walk, or dance to the beat of any song. “Your body senses the first note of every measure and so steps accordingly,” she said in her liquid alto voice. To this day, altos remain my favourite voices in a choir. “Everyone — One, two, three, four!” She made us march with Wolfe and strut in Arkansas. We even invented 1-2-3 waltz-like lurches to “God Save the King.”
Miss Pierce marched the class around the room while playing another 4/4 number we had never heard before. Everyone but Joe Klug was marching a tempo. Joe always had his own weird drummer. As it happened, we did step in perfect time to several songs, Miss Pierce clapping her hands in rhythm. We noticed Sonja Johnson and MaryAnne Magnuson actually dancing while God saved the Queen, and deep down I sensed they weren’t just little girls anymore.
My pal, Dave said, “I thought we weren’t allowed to dance. Isn’t it sinful or something?”
Wicked or not, Miss Pierce kept us moving: “One, two, three. One, two three!”
For an hour, we trotted: 4/4, 3/4, 2/2, 6/8. We had no idea what we were actually doing, but our muscles obeyed a primal call, even though “measure” and “rhythm” were meaningless words to us.
Later, Miss Pierce had us sing “The Maple Leaf Forever,” again. It now had a bit of a stride to it, and sounded like a real national anthem:
In days of yore, from Britain’s shore, Wolfe the dauntless hero came
And planted firm Britannia’s flag On Canada’s fair domain.
Dave whispered to me, “‘Donkless’? What’s a ‘donk’? Why didn’t the wolf have a donk?” We snorted out loud.
Dave and I had been close friends since we were three. He was a blacksmith’s son. He became a blacksmith and a welder in The G. Dahl and Son blacksmith shop the same day I went off to college in Minnesota. Dave was the smartest kid I knew. He could have aced college, but he preferred steel and fire, hammering sparks.
Miss Inez Pierce was tall, with wavy black hair that flowed when she walked and moved side-to-side when she played piano. Even using our limited criteria, we knew she was in the “pretty” category. On the playground, the girls often wondered about Miss Pierce. Did she have a boyfriend. Did she have a broken heart? The boys never raised the subject, but if we had I think we would have been kind of glad she was single. I never saw her outside of school, and I discovered her first name by accident, five years later, in The Camrose Canadian. I still don’t know for sure how to pronounce that magical name, “Inez.”
When teaching us, Miss Pierce wore white silk blouses, a pearl necklace, and a soft cardigan, which she draped over her shoulders. Her dark tartan skirts had so many pleats they had a life of their own. At the John Russell school, all teachers were women, but only one wore black high heels.
Then something remarkable happened: the John Russell School caught fire.
All the fire drills, familiar to every school child, paid off. When the fire bell clanged, like clockwork monkeys we marched out of our classrooms in brisk 4/4 time. Schools had separate entrances, one each for Girls and Boys. Dave and I single-filed out of Boys like the Queen’s Guards, and our class assembled on our designated spot: the home plate of our ball diamond. WE loved fire drills. They were as good as a recess. We turned toward the school.
When we saw the flames coming out of a basement window, pandemonium ruled the playground. This was not a drill, a rehearsal. We were looking at a real, live, serious fire. The teachers were trying to have a roll call, but we ignored them, forming a ragged, awe-struck circle around the old brick structure. It may or may not have been a safe distance.
Awe soon gave way to raucous yelling.
The fire had started in the basement. “That crappy old coal furnace,” Dave announced confidently, the lad who understood flame and steel. We watched the flames, angry animals pushing against the grimy basement windows. Abruptly, growling and roaring, the fire burst through the basement ceiling and into the first floor, into Grade III. OUR home room! We cheered! Then the flames clawed through into Miss Vel’s Grade IV room on the second floor. The Grade IV’s took their turn to cheer. Out in right field, Miss Vel had her class arranged in 6 sharp rows, with 5 kids per row. I could have sworn they cheered in unison.
We didn’t ask ourselves why we were cheering. The urge was primal. This was the biggest fire in Camrose since the Byers Flour Mill elevators went up in flames. But that was before we were born. This was Our Fire, and we were sure it would mean a long and unexpected school holiday. Of course we cheered.
Soon after the Grade IV room filled with flames, someone in the noisy circle pointed up.
The auditorium took up the entire the top floor of the old brick building, the third floor. Miss Pierce’s personal Heintzman upright grand piano stood in the auditorium, centre stage. All our music classes met in the auditorium. The school band made horrible music there, too. And the Drama Club murdered Shakespeare on the auditorium stage every winter.
We saw fire high up in two auditorium windows. Then the roof lit while the flames howled, outward and upward, feeding on the open air. I still remember the snarling, roaring sounds of no wild animal I could imagine.
Our cheers were suddenly drowned out by a CRASH!
The rock-solid, oak Heintzman weighed hundreds of pounds. Two years before, we’d watched six men heaving and groaning to move the brown monster up several flights of stairs to its place on the auditorium stage.
“Weighs a ton,” Dave had said. “They should hitch a cat to it.”
“A cat can’t pull a piano up stairs!” I said.
“It will if you use a whip,” Dave said. He mined his own vein of humour.
But today it wasn’t long before the upright grand thundered down through theAuditorium’s blazing floor, onto Mrs McLeary’s desk on the second floor. Sparks and smoke belched through ragged holes in the shingles of the roof. The massive Heintzman crashed on, through the first floor, hauling the Principal’s entire office with it into the basement.
Hysterical cheers and laughter. Everyone felt giddy from the smoke. The fire was like an insane fiend making every kid’s darkest wishes come true in seconds.
We were watching an historical spectacle almost as thrilling as the time Mayor Brand set fire to a thousand dollars’ worth of fireworks he’d packed into the trunk of his second-hand Oldsmobile. It was the windup grandstand show of The Camrose Fair in 1946. Because of the war, none of us kids in Camrose had ever seen live fireworks, except for a handful of little firecrackers my friend Harmon brought back from China. His family were missionaries.
Mayor Brand made a long speech about safety and how he was taking responsibility himself to be sure the fireworks were done right for our annual enjoyment thanks to the generosity of our esteemed Premier, Ernest C. Manning, Lawrence’s Dry Goods and the Royal Bank of Canada and please stay off the racetrack.
Mayor Brand was standing in front of his black Oldsmobile, on the race track, talking loud and waving at the grandstand crowd. The sun was setting.
“What’s he holding?” I asked Dave. Brand waved some kind of stick that glowed and sputtered. It looked like movie dynamite.
Dave whispered to me, “It’s a railroad emergency flare. The bugger is nuts.” Dave had two older brothers. “Bugger” was one of many words not in my Lutheran vocabulary, yet.
A gust blew a handful of fat embers from the railroad flare, arcing them onto the roof of the mayor’s car. The sparks rolled down the rear window, through the crack, and into the Oldsmobile’s open trunk. While Brand was waving his torch and jabbering into the microphone, the Olds suddenly belched several noisy rockets and explosions out of its rear end.
Mayor Brand panicked. He whirled around and, inexplicably, jumped into the car. He must have lost his head and hoped to drive his precious car out of harm’s way. Spinning the tires, he headed off at full speed around the race track. I noticed he was going the wrong way, from right to left. The racing trotters and their sulkies always ran left to right. I was about to point this out to Dave, but I realized my observation was, like the cat remark, ridiculous.
At the first turn, Catherine wheels and firecrackers lit up in support of the rockets, flopping and hissing onto the ground, like devils fallen from the sky, spraying sparks over the darkening infield, setting fire to patches of dry grass. We heard sounds like exploding hand grenades. Horses in the nearby stables were starting to whinny and stamp their feet.
Eventually, the town’s one and only Volunteer Fire truck, sirens howling and red lights flashing, crashed right through the racetrack’s wooden fence, without opening the gate. The firetruck driver headed the correct way around the track, from left to right, apparently intending to intercept the fat little pyromaniac who was heading toward the firetruck on the back stretch, full speed. Sparklers, whiz-bangs, and more rockets followed him. Also at full speed.
Brand swerved at the last second and flew past the howling fire truck. The firetruck skidded to a halt and, with hoses waving, made a tidy, two-point turn before roaring after the Oldsmobile. Someone in the truck turned off the siren, now redundant.
Coming into the home stretch, Brand’s Oldsmobile crossed the finish line, discharging dozens of technicolor farts. BLAT! BLAT! WHUMP! Random red, white, green, and blue cloudbursts lit up the prairie night. About half the infield grass was burning. His Worship the Mayor rolled out of the driver’s seat and was now running — not his best sport — madly away from his car.
“That gas tank’s gonna blow!!” bellowed a cowboy at the rail. The fire chief caught up with Brand in the middle of the infield, sprayed the car, and him, with a foaming fire extinguisher. He dragged Brand into the fire truck. A woman later identified as one of the town hall secretaries shrieked spontaneously, “Let him burn!!”
The fire department saved the day. The car didn’t explode, but it was a write-off. And no one mourned when it turned out to be Billy Brand’s final day in office. Dave said to me, “Don’t you dare say, ‘Well, at least he went out with a bang.’”
Dave ‘s cute cousin Marion said, “brand is a word for fire. I saw it in a Robin Hood book.”
Immediately I resolved to read more.
It was Miss Pierce’s final year, too. Her piano had made short work of Principal Smith’s filing cabinets, shredding and burning everyone’s records and report cards. The Heintzman, thundering onto his office furniture and through the smoking wood floor, hit the cast-iron furnace with a chord worthy of Stockhausen.
“Even Beethoven heard that racket,” Dave said. “And Beethoven’s dead.” Dave’s sister took piano lessons.
“And deaf,” smiled Marion, who took Toronto Conservatory of Music piano lessons from Mrs. Woodhams. Dave and I were too busy enjoying the spectacle to realize that by standing on home plate we had planted ourselves right in front of Miss Pierce. We didn’t notice her.
The piano hit the furnace. No sign of the fire department yet.
When the assembled multitude of kids cheered again, Miss Pierce hissed, “Philistines!!” Right in my ear.
Spinning around, we saw her leaving the schoolyard. Holding her head high, sashaying across the ball field, carrying her pumps by their heels, her tartan skirt swinging defiantly, away from the school and far away from the Philistines. In left field, she threw her all her books and papers high into the air. Unburdened.
Mary Ann Magnusen said Miss Pierce was singing “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” as loud as she could, doing a little skip on the “doo-dah.” And she was calling out words Mary Ann had never heard before. Worse than “bugger,” I think. Mary Ann was a child of the Lutheran extraction, too. By the time she hit Grade IX, Mary Ann had learned all those words, becoming something of a fire-starter in her own right.
Dave said, “Maybe Miss Pierce was fromArkansas. Where’sArkansas?”
“She’s prob’ly going back there.”
I doubted him.
The Camrose Volunteer Fire Dept’s single fire-truck eventually pulled up to the back door. Lots of fuss and nonsense ensued because the firemen could see they were too late. Way too late. But they stayed and sprayed water on the smoking wreckage for the rest of the day. It was better than working and, probably, kind of fun.
I was fond of Mrs. Lawson, my Grade III home-room teacher, but these many years later I remember only her starched white blouses and the multiplication table. I felt sorry for her precious pictures of “the Young Queen Elizabeth.” They perished in the flames. Miss Vel, from Grade IV, left no impression whatsoever on me, aside from being dark-haired, almost as pretty as Miss Pierce, and obsessed with penmanship.
But Miss Pierce is woven into the tapestries of music in all the headphones, living rooms, movies, CDs, rehearsal rooms, and concert halls of my life. I remember everything she taught me: how to sit up straight while singing, how to breathe, how to appreciate syncopation and 6/8 time, “crisp final consonants,” all the lyrics to “TheArkansas Traveller,” and scores of other tunes.
I looked up “Philistine” in the dictionary. What I read made me embarrassed.
The image of Miss Pierce’s perfect silk blouse and beautiful tartan, striding away into the freedom of an uncertain future, made me never want to be called “Philistine” again.
“Together . . . ONE, TWO, THREE, MARCH! . . . Ronald!”
No one in our prairie town saw the dauntless Miss Inez Pierce ever again.
But if Miss Pierce ever reads this, I apologize, humbly and gratefully.