It was a dumb and unnecessary confession I’d made, an unforced error that unleashed against me a hellish fifteen-minute long stern good talking to.
This by a high school English teacher, no less, and, worse, a fastidiously strict grammarian. We’d crossed paths many times before, she and I, and I’d always come out worse for the wear.
I should have known better. After all, I was a student in one of her classes, which was a nightmare of the highest order. She made us read Shakespeare out loud and fully expected her students to magically pierce the meaning behind the strange incantations in The Merchant of Venice, which to my mind was either written in Latin or something called Old English. All I knew for sure was that it wasn’t English English, the kind normal people spoke. Yet once she’d gone so far as to make the ludicrous claim that it was written in Early Modern English and not that hard to understand.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, she’d also made sentence diagramming part of her curriculum, an exercise which made Shakespeare seem like it should have been easy in comparison.
I can’t fully describe the terrors she inspired with her sentence diagramming exercises without describing her.
She was an elegant woman, who in laid-back 1970s California was far from laid-back. She took everything seriously. She dressed in womanly business attire, like she was in command of a boardroom, not a classroom. Had it been the 21st Century and not the less enlightened 70s of the 20th, you’d have concluded she was a CEO or high-powered attorney.
She wore dull, single-color wool skirts that fell just below her knees, and her blouses always buttoned up high on her neck. She was taller than any of her students, and taller still because she invariably wore heels. Her hair was perfectly coifed and pulled tightly to the back of her head, not to end in a ponytail, but a bun so tightly wound one wondered if she might be much older than she appeared, with her skin pulled smooth by the forces exerted upon it by the tensile strength of the hair itself. Maybe she was thirty. Maybe she was forty. I could never tell.
This was the imposing figure who would stand at the chalkboard, twisting words out of sentences and into her elaborate diagramming schematics, which to me seemed as impenetrable as Boolean algebra or propositional calculous.
We had assigned seating, so I’d failed to claim a desk in the back of the room where I would have been harder to see. Instead, I sat smack dab in her line of sight. So it happened that she would often look at me after drawing her sentence hieroglyphics and ask that I explain where the verbs, nouns, and other parts of speech were in the diagram. I hadn’t a clue. I’d never had a clue. So I’d answer, “Um…” and guess poorly. She’d then explain to me what the homework assignment had been and pointedly ask me if I had completed it.
“Um…yes,” I’d lie.
Then she’d grill me about when and where I’d, in fact, been when I’d done the homework, and ask directly what I did and did not understand about it. Sometimes, it was so bad I even regretted not doing the homework in the first place.
So I knew how tough she could be. Worse, I sort of figured out she was probably the smartest person in the whole damned school and that she probably thought I was the dumbest person in the whole damned school.
Yet there was another side of her. That’s what made me drop my guard and make the confession that set in motion the hallway lecture that I remember to this day.
The other side came through in her role as advisor for the school’s literary magazine. There, after school, in the same classroom where she’d cross-examined me so viciously so often, she’d sit with those of us on the literary magazine’s editorial board and give us the impression we were in charge of selecting stories and poetry for publication, as well as designing and seeing to the publication of the magazine itself.
In that environment, she had an ever-present and supportive smile, and instead of taking charge, she simply made suggestions for us to consider, so slyly, in fact, that we didn’t realize we were following her lead all along. Moreover, she talked to us about writing, something I actually loved.
She’d read every story and poem each of us had written, and every story and poem submitted to the magazine – and she talked to us about all of them. She’d get the discussion going with sound yet kind critiques of our work, until we were essentially a full-blown, if adolescent, writer’s workshop. No work was accepted or rejected for inclusion in the magazine without a long and thorough discussion of its merits and weaknesses. Ridicule was the only thing she would not allow, about any writer or any writer’s work. The merits were all we were allowed to discuss.
My respect and admiration for her grew exponentially, as did my trust.
So when she stopped me in the hallway to talk about a poem I’d written, my guard was down. The poem, she said, reminded her of Emily Dickenson’s work, and she asked me if I’d ever read Dickenson. I wouldn’t admit that I didn’t know who Emily Dickenson was, so I answered, “Not a lot.”
Then she asked me what I do when I write, how I got into the frame of mind to compose a story or poem.
And, just like that, came the confession, the origins of which lay with a certain group of friends I had at the time – and a frankly disgusting habit we shared.
We were an elite gathering of oddballs and comedians who, for reasons I can’t fully understand today, solidified our friendships during formal meetings at which we’d all dip snuff, plugging pinches of the finely ground tobacco between our lips and gums in ritualistic fashion. Often, we’d initiate the “dip” as an honor in recognition of some accomplishment a member of the group had managed. Usually, it was an act of defiance or hilarity that won our respect. If both had been managed simultaneously, two dips might be the required honor.
The act itself seemed to bind us as kindred souls.
Snuff is, of course, a gross and wretched substance, but ridiculously addictive, like taking nicotine directly into the bloodstream. Yet no matter its erosion of our gums and lips, no matter the horrible taste and doubtlessly bad effect on our breath and dating prospects, we kept at it because it made us unique among our peers. To us at any rate. Besides, as I said, it was horribly addicting, so we couldn’t have stopped if we tried.
So it goes without saying, my writing desk at home had at its side a shiny brass spittoon, which I would spit into while dipping snuff to get, in addition to saliva, my nicotine-fueled creative juices flowing. I never started writing without a sizable dip to start the process and spitting to collect my thoughts.
I confessed this in response to the teacher’s query, and suddenly she was the teacher at the front of the class again, singling me out for rebuke.
“No!” she exclaimed, suddenly commanding me in a voice reminiscent of the demonic “Get Out!” that sent Rod Steiger fleeing from the Amityville Horror house.
I knew I was screwed. But unlike Steiger, I had nowhere to run.