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The Inimitable Ms. Cavendish: A High School Teacher I Will Never Forget
There are Teachers...
There are a handful of high school teachers who will always be seared into my memory.
One was the amazing Dr. Ornery*.
Although she had a PhD. she taught High School Advanced Placement European and Advanced Placement American History. A spinster, with tight pepper curls and a mouth drawn into a thin line, she used to sit in the stalls of the girl's restroom and listen to the teenage gossip. Our hearts would jump when we saw her shiny penny loafers with the root beer barrel tassels peeking out underneath the squat, metal doors. Sometimes she would tell the class the things she overheard in the bathroom. One time we noticed her shoes after laughing about her. We made a speedy exit and I spent the next hour quaking in her class, wondering if she would be able to determine that I was one of the girls who had laughed at her.
Students in her senior year A.P. classes were often sent on unsupervised "donut runs" when she didn't feel like teaching. She wore heavy gold chains around her neck and drove an Alpha Romeo that she lovingly referred to as her "baby". Some days she would spend half the class period talking about her Alpha Romeo and how she loved it, how it glinted in the sun after a wax and how the snotty rich kids who went to our high school were either keying it or vandalizing it in some way. She claimed to have bought three different Alpha Romeos in the course of her teaching career because she refused to keep a car that had a mark on it.
I thought she bore a striking resemblance to the ancient Egyptian Queen Hatshepsut. She was a relic, a stone thing that had traveled and "seen the world!" She told us about India and the huge cockroaches that crawled out of the septic tanks there. I thought she was absurd, sad and, though she could be so crazy at times, I felt a vague pity and sympathy for her. I also knew that she liked me and liked my older brother who had taken her class three years previous.
Girls who "analyzed" their hair and wore strawberry lip gloss bugged her to no end and she would embarrass these girls and snap at them to "stop it!" She was wont to go up and down the rows and tell the students if they were smart enough to be in the class, if they were too stupid to be in the class, and if they were smart but didn't try hard enough to be in the class. I fit into the latter category. When she got to me she gave an exasperated shrug and spat: "You need to try harder K.D.!!"
It was rumored that one day, in a fit of rage, she threw a textbook at a student and it narrowly missed him and hit the wall. The other rumor was that she had a brain tumor of some sort. The book incident happened a few years before she was my teacher.
Sometimes her class was rollicking, full of laughter. She did love History, but I think she missed her calling as a community college instructor-likely a much less stressful environment for her.
Dr. Ornery didn't believe in grades and gave all of us A's (except those she deemed unworthy because of said hair analyzation). Her teaching career ended my senior year when she brought an unloaded gun to class and threatened to blow her brains out with it. Apparently a student had vandalized her car again and that was the straw that broke the proverbial back. The incident happened in her 1st period A.P. European History class so I never got to see her that day. She was dismissed forthwith by our Vice Principal Dr. Hetty Stanowitz.
Absurd as this all sounds it is indeed a true story. Now that I am an adult I wonder if she had some kind of personality disorder.
But this was probably not the story you were expecting from a hub with this title, am I right? I have other infamous memories of my high school teachers: from the Drama teacher who encouraged me to play an old Tennessee Williams dowager in our state drama competition, all the while telling me in his Cary Grant voice that I was "soooooo sincere", to the director of our literary magazine, Mrs. Stonehater, who accused me of plagiarizing a short story I wrote because it was "too good" for me to have written by myself.
There WAS one jewel in this morass of dross, however. There WAS one shining example of a teacher dedicated to her craft; a teacher who looked at her job as a vocation, a calling and an art. That teacher was Ms. Cavendish, my A.P. English Literature teacher.
Enter Ms. Cavendish
"Can someone please tell me what visceral means?"
The room was silent and all the hair analyzing girls and Lacoste wearing boys scrunched their faces in contemplation, struggling to find the nuggets of knowledge ore Virginia Woolf once wrote about. Ms. Cavendish' dark hawk eyes bore down on us while we scrambled for words to answer her question. We had been reading Saul Bellow's Henderson The Rain King and were discussing instinctual response.
"Can't anyone here tell me what the word visceral means?" We shifted in our seats. She smirked and shook her head. "Fine. Todd would you please get up from your seat?" Todd Edmunds, who I had a secret crush on, dutifully rose. "Do you see Miss Steinman's feet?" Missy Steinman, Co-editor of our school paper, was wearing open toed flats. Todd nodded. "Good. I want you to put your hands on top of Miss Steinman's feet. Can you do that?" Todd gulped and nodded again. Carefully he bent down and touched Missy's skin.
"What do you feel Todd?" Todd was blushing and he mumbled something. He was asked to repeat himself.
"I feel her skin."
"Her blood I suppose." Ms. Cavendish gazed at us and flashed one of her enigmatic smiles.
"Good Todd. You may sit now. How does what has just happened with Mr. Edmunds and Miss Steinman relate to the word visceral? One would assume that Mr. Edmunds has just had a visceral experience. If you don't know then I suggest you look up the word in the dictionary after class. You are in A.P. English now and you need to apply yourselves more if you want to be able to pass the A.P. exam in spring."
1. Of or pertaining to the viscera. 2. Affecting the viscera. 3. of the nature of or resembling viscera. 4. Characterized by or proceeding from instinct rather than intellect: a visceral reaction. 5.
Characterized by or dealing with coarse or base emotions; earthy; crude: a visceral literary style.
That was classic Ms. Cavendish. She challenged us to think critically, to question, and would often tease out of our souls the knowledge that was hidden but getting ready to emerge as we groped our way to graduation and the college years before us.
She was mysterious and commanding, but also warm and genuine. She wore sweeping Bohemian shirts and hinted that as an 18 year old teenager she'd run off to New York City for some reason or another. She liked her "average" English students as much as her privileged A.P. Sterling Scholars; genuinely enjoying the Stoners and Goth denizens who often stayed after class to discuss poetry and Pink Floyd with her.
I was a little in awe of her and a bit afraid of her regal bearing; especially because she could see through my underachieving B.S.
When I received my first essay back from her I saw a bright red D+ on the front and, in her elegant handwriting, the sentence: "Beautifully written but little substance. One would suspect that you never read the book." She suspected right and had caught me, as it were, red handed.
Quiet Strength, Quiet Dignity
Over the course of the year we realized that Ms. Cavendish was undergoing chemotherapy treatments. She began wearing turbans, hats and scarves. Sometimes she looked haggard and pale. On days when she was absent she had a meticulously written lesson plan for the substitute teacher to follow or we took tests and practiced writing essays. She did not falter, even during this time of struggle, to carefully comb our essays and give us personal feedback and encouragement.
I began to write. To try. But no matter how hard I tried I never managed to get higher than a B+ on my essays. I yearned to please her, to have her intense eyes shower me with generosity and esteem.
The end of the year came and we took the much anticipated test. It was far easier than I had imagined it would be. When I came back to class after finishing the test Ms. Cavendish looked up at me and smiled.
"Tell me how it was K.D." she said in her gracious manner. I told her how I answered the essay on Emily Dickinson's poem The Hummingbird. She smiled and nodded.
"I knew you could do it. I knew you would do well."
And I did. Although I never got higher than a B+ in her class I was one of the three students who scored a 5 on the A.P. exam that year-the highest score one can achieve.
Goodbye Ms. Cavendish
On the last day of school, the day for yearbooks and graduation, I said goodbye to Ms. Cavendish. I had prepared a present for her, a tape of my piano compositions. I didn't know if she would understand why I was compelled to thank her, to give her this piece of myself. I had never had the ease of conversation with her that she appeared to experience with her "average" stoner students. I was afraid she could see straight through me-that she knew that I was really a nothing and a nobody.
I found her at her desk reading through a sheaf of papers. When I entered she looked up at me and shifted her glasses down the bridge of her nose.
"So this is it isn't it K.D.?" I nodded and somehow spluttered that I wanted to thank her and would she take this present of the tape of my piano compositions? She nodded and thanked me. I waited, not knowing what I was waiting for. Unwavering she watched me with her intelligent eyes as I walked toward the door.
I looked back at her. She smiled.
"Don't worry. You will do well in college. You can do it. You really can."
With a lump in my throat I left the classroom and found my way to my locker. I opened it. Looking into the void I smothered a sob and the tears finally came.
* All Names Have Been Changed
© 2009 K.D. Clement