Her name was Peggy and she taught English and she taught it in a classroom behind the music room; you had to take a small path around the side of the building and duck under a low hanging tree branch which, after it rained, meant that most everyone who passed through would get hit in the face with soggy wet leaves. It was small things like that that made it one of the most indelible classroom experiences I’ve ever had. Peggy was a short woman with a short black hair; the kind of near bob that she may have had since the 1960’s, as she was most assuredly a
product of that era. She could always beat (and would occasionally be the one to insitigate a challenge to) any one of the bigger students at arm wrestling, a feat that she liked to show off once in a while, perhaps on a slow Friday when there was little work to be done. She couldn’t have been more than 5’2”, yet never lost an arm wrestling match.
She made me want to read more, and during the two years I took classes with her my mind grew exponentially. She had the kind of influence on you — should you care to listen — that made you want to learn. And not in a way that included just taking notes; the kind of desire to learn that kept you up at night, scouring thesauruses for the exact right word, rereading the last page of a novel simply because you never wanted it to end, the desire to write only true words.
Anyway. On the first day any of us had class with her she decided to read us Edgar Allen Poe’s "The Telltale Heart".
Let me backtrack a little by saying this was an Episcopalean school in a very white-bread neighborhood in a very well-to-do part of the lower Bay area. Rich mothers came through all the time scouting out the best school for their kids, and that day was no exception.
Peggy was the kind of teacher that when she read out loud made you forget that there was anybody else in the room. She starts reading “The Telltale Heart”, almost mumbling. As the story progressed, she gradually — and I do mean graaaaadually — got louder. For those of you familiar with the story, the protagonist is racked with guilt over what he percieves to be a beating heart under the floorboards. She rapped on the desk with
her knuckles - thump thump, thump thump - and we leaned in a little closer. Thump thump. Thump thump.
“I paced the floor to and fro with heavy strides,”, she said, reading from the book, pacing the floor of the classroom with heavy strides.
“...as if excited to fury by the observations of the men, but the noise steadily increased. O God! what COULD I do? I foamed — I raved — I swore! SHIT!” she said, swearing.
“I swung the chair upon which I had been sitting, and grated it upon the boards,” she said, swinging the chair upon which she had been sitting and placing it with a loud thunk on the floor.
“But the noise arose over all and continually increased. It grew louder — louder — louder! And still the men chatted pleasantly , and smiled. Was it possible they heard not? Almighty God! — no, no? They heard! — they suspected! — they KNEW! — they were making a mockery of my horror! — this I thought, and this I think. But anything was better than this agony! Anything was more tolerable than this derision! I could bear those hypocritical smiles no longer! I felt that I must scream or die! — and now — again — hark! louder! louder! louder! LOUDER!”
She screamed the last part. Screaming. At the top of her lungs, clutching her short black hair at her temple with her free hand.
She suddenly looked up at the door.
In the doorway stood a prospective mother and her young son, apparently on a tour of the school, and the look on the kids face was that of sheer, abject, and total horror. Peggy, for one split second, broke character and shrugged just a small apologetic shrug, and continued to read.
“Villains!” she shrieked, “Dissemble no more! I admit the deed! —
tear up the planks! — here, here! — it is the beating of his hideous heart!” She held her fist aloft, as if a heart was indeed in her hand. The mother shook her head, turned around, and left, never to be seen again. Her face, it seemed, showed that she would never be able to understand this sort of behavior.
But inside that classroom we all wore the kind of smile you can’t hold in, as if someone had just let you in on a very special secret, the kind of secret that a good teacher will be happy to tell you, and the kind of secret that you can’t wait to share with the right people, at the right time, on the right day, in a little classroom behind the music room.