T. S. Eliot said April was the cruellest month, which proves he never experienced February in Philadelphia.
February is when Mother Nature has PMS, and I didn't feel terrific either. On a Monday afternoon, enduring a standard-issue winter cold, with only one of the five teaching days completed, I considered the nasty little month the longest one on the calendar. Winter could come and spring be agonizingly far behind, no matter what a dizzily optimistic poet had claimed.
Several stories below my classroom, students poured out of the school, emitting happy noises that floated up to me while I tidied my room and let the VCR rewind. Above the blackboard, the likenesses of Willie Shakespeare, Virginia Woolf and Mark Twain looked annoyed or disdainful.
Perhaps they were offended by my declining standards of teaching. The shorter the days, the longer my cold, the less enthusiasm I was able to muster.
The VCR whirred in reverse. My seniors, suffering last-semester ennui, had received their final transfusion of Shakespeare intravenously, through film. I didn't even feel guilty about it.
I would someday like to meet the warped curriculum designer who inflicted halting, amateur readings of Hamlet on English teachers already coping with seniors and February. If I ever find him, I'll make him sit through Moose Moscowitz's portrayal of the Prince of Denmark. That'll give him a new definition of tragedy.
I had tried to present Shakespeare in the orthodox manner. Nevertheless, after a few wretched scenes, during which even Moose's classmates rolled their eyes like dying horses, we switched to the Couch Potato version. Moose was delighted to be replaced by Laurence Olivier, whose performance was a hit. I did it all for the Bard.
But then, because we had zipped through Shakespeare and because I was still coughing and sneezing, I tossed in a "bonus" play, a comedy this time, The Taming of the Shrew, which happened to be available on the resource library shelf. Now I waited as it rewound itself.
"I'll do a better job tomorrow," I muttered to the literary icons above the board.
Tonight, however, I was devoting to feeling sorry for myself. I would drink chicken soup and mint tea and wear woolly socks and contemplate the fact that my gentleman friend was occupied with a former girlfriend and that it was still February outside. In fact, there was no need to wait until tonight. I started pitying myself on the spot.
My delicious wallow was interrupted by discreet throat-clearing. I turned and saw two senior girls, each standing with one hip out, head tilted, waiting for me.
I knew I was on the verge of having even more to feel rotten about. Seniors didn't linger after school to share glad tidings. "Hi," I said, "I didn't realize you were still here. What's up?"
Rita, the more aggressive of the two, stood with hands on hips and chin in the air in eloquent and challenging body language.
I steeled myself.
She nodded, head bobbling forward in pre-agreement with whatever she had to say. "Wanted to talk about…"
"About your paper, I guess." Every senior had to write a research paper in order to graduate. No senior wanted to.
"No," she said, shaking her head. "About that," her thumb toward the VCR. "That shrew play."
Truth is, The Taming of the Shrew makes me queasy. I have trouble with the premise that there's something wrong with a headstrong woman. Is a headweak woman the ideal? I wouldn't have chosen the play if it hadn't been sitting there on the English Department shelf.
"He's a pig!" Rita said.
"You mean Petruchio?" I asked.
"Shakespeare! He's the pig," Rita snarled. She looked to her companion and yesperson, Colleen, for confirmation, but got none, because Colleen was busy shoving papers into a lime green folder ornamented with the metallic stars elementary teachers award spelling tests. Gold for perfection. Silver for one error. Red for two, as I recall, but Colleen's stars spelled an old English word that never appears on vocabulary lists.
Shakespeare is a pig. I mulled this over. I hadn't expected my seniors to stay awake through the movie, let alone react to its philosophic nuances. Bad enough that the class met the last period of the day, but it was also suffering advanced senioritis, an affliction of those about to be sprung, or graduated, as we prefer to put it. Grades had been sent to less selective colleges everywhere. Nothing mattered from here on except not getting thrown out of school, and it's nearly impossible to be thrown out of Philly Prep if your parents have already paid your tuition. Our seniors know that if they remain in suspended animation, the finish line will come to them.
"I coulda puked when Kate says nice wives should put their hands below their husbands' feet!" Rita could talk and growl at the same time. "A perfect wife my—! I wouldn't get married if that's how it was. Right? Am I right or what, Coll?"
"Well…" Colleen said noncommittally.
I felt obliged to present the official academic defense. "It's a farce. Light, funny, not to be taken seriously."
Rita's hands balled into fists. "But it's not funny what he does to her! And what kind of happy ending is that supposed to be? She's got no spirit left—no mind, even. He says it's night, so she says it's night. He changes his mind and says it's day, so she says it's day. He breaks her, and that's supposed to be funny? Am I right or what, Coll?"
"Well…" Colleen looked wistfully toward the gray out-of-doors.
Despite Colleen's indifference, I felt lightheaded, and not from my cold. Philly Prep is where people who don't want to go to school do go to school, so an after-hours, voluntary debate of Shakespearean sexism was cause for giddiness.
"If a guy ever treated me like that—" Only a suicidal male would treat Rita any way she didn't want to be treated. For starters, she had a large housefly tattooed on her face. For whatever comes after starters, she acted and dressed the way you'd expect of somebody who etches an insect on her cheek. "I been telling Colleen." Bad English was Rita's second language. Her father was a lawyer, her mother a professor of education at Penn. Sometimes, when agitated, Rita accidentally slipped into English Queen Elizabeth would envy.
"Colleen's boyfriend's so tough," Rita continued. "Macho, you know? She lets him get away with murder. He pushes her around and says he ought to teach her a lesson, like the creep in the play."
Colleen shrugged and finally looked directly at me. "Maybe you could explain to Rita how guys are," she said.
"Me?" I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. "I'm not certified in that subject area." Thirty years old and I still didn't have a handle. It was embarrassing to be such a slow learner.
I busied myself tidying the desk. Philly Prep is easy on its students, exacting of its physical plant. We stand for the highest educational values: clean blackboards, neatly aligned window shades, cleared desks.
"I'm sure your guy isn't a wimp," Colleen said to me.
"Well, I'm sure Miss Pepper doesn't let him push her around and tell her what to do like you let Ronny," Rita said.
"About whom are we talking?" I asked.
"Ronny Spingle." Colleen looked honored to say his name. "He doesn't go here. He's twenty and—"
"No. I meant you were asking me about somebody who doesn't tell me how to act. Who?"
"Hell, Miss Pepper, we know teachers are people, too." Rita sniggered, as if despite her words, she considered the idea ludicrous. "And we know that you and the cop, the cute one who was here that time…well, you know."
I didn't know much—not even the cute cop's given name. But one thing I did know was that I wasn't about to discuss C. K. Mackenzie or my romantic life with a seventeen-year-old in black lipstick and a woodpecker hairdo.
In any case, my shaky lovelife didn't include the kind of testosterone-poisoned man the girls were talking about. I had never been attracted to Rambo types, the Stanley Kowalskis who look likely to knock around their women. Besides, we had wandered far afield from the play Rita had stayed to discuss. "Don't forget," I said, packing papers into my briefcase, "circumstances were different in Shakespeare's time. Women were chattel."
"They were cows?" Colleen's mouth hung slightly askew.
Rita sneered. "She didn't say cattle, stupido. No wonder Ronny says you're dumb. No wonder—"
"Chattel," I repeated. "Personal, movable property. Husbands owned their wives." I thumbed through the text of the play, still thunderstruck that an idea had outlasted a class period. I found the spot and read:
"She is my goods, my chattels; she is my house,
My household-stuff, my field, my barn,
My horse, my ox, my ass, my anything…"
"My ass, my ass! I mean really!" Rita waved a menacing fist and cracked her gum. "Where does that pig get off calling her a shrew?"
"And what is a shrew, anyway?" Colleen sounded whiny, like a child afraid of being called stupid again.
"It's a tiny animal. Kind of like a mouse. A fierce fighter who takes on animals bigger than itself."
"Is that why they call Kate a shrew?" Rita's hands were back on her hips. "The big animal she takes on is a man? Is that what it means?"
We were talking semantics. We were upset about etymology. Incredible. "She takes him on with words, I said. "Nagging, temper tantrums." The weapons of the weak and hopeless.
"Why shouldn't she get angry?" Rita's gum cracked. "Her father was selling her to whoever paid! You wouldn't treat your dog that way!"
"I agree one hundred percent." These girls had hibernated in my class for seven months, and the abrupt activation of their dormant gray matter was awe-inspiring. I would have gone on admiring the transformation had not the wall clock advanced with a hiss and a click. I checked it and realized I had to leave. "Let's talk about this in class tomorrow, and after school, too, if you like." I buckled my briefcase and moved toward the door.
The Shakespearean scholars stayed in place. They looked at each other, then at me, gulping, sighing, shuffling their feet. Maybe I had been too abrupt. "I want you to know something," I said. " It's been a genuine thrill talking about ideas instead of hearing complaints about term papers!" I wasn't kidding. My mood had lifted, my head felt clearer, and even the sun seemed to come out of retirement.
Colleen bit at her lip and stuck a finger into the recesses of her hair to scratch. "Yeah," she said. "Well actually, now that you mention term papers…" She nudged Rita and swallowed hard.
A few seconds passed while I absorbed the fact that my lovely after-school encounter had been carefully orchestrated with me in the role of dupe. The illusion of sun dissipated and my sinuses reclogged. I had been set up, softened with Shakespeare, and now I was ready for the kill.
"No offense," Rita said, "but the subjects you suggested? They're no good."
I had tried to be innovative and untraditional, to make the idea of research fun, to provide unscholarly, unanswered questions for which the students could formulate theories. I had obviously failed. My spirits sank even lower.
"They're like for idiots," Rita added.
Could she be right and publishing empires and supermarket checkout stands wrong? Did only idiots care about the existence of Bigfoot, pregnant ninety-six year old women, UFO's landing in Wichita backyards, and—the number one concern of America—whether or not Elvis was actually dead?
"Boring," Colleen said.
"You said we should pick what interests us," Rita said. "No offense, but that junk doesn't."
I mourned those innocent moments when I'd thought they'd stayed for Shakespeare's sake. "What would you rather research?" I asked softly.
They shook their heads. One looked like Woody Woodpecker in a snit, the other like an inverted skunk. Colleen had dyed her hair a while back and was in need of a touch up, which made her the only person I knew with blonde roots.
They were using standard senior strategy, dithering and dawdling until June happened and they won through erosion, battle fatigue, and the faculty's desire to see them gone. But it was only February. There was still life and fight in me.
"I have to leave." I popped the rewound tape out of the VCR while I searched for a way to head them off at the pass. And suddenly I realized I held the solution in my palm. Literally. "But there is something that interests you!" They cringed at my cheery response, as well they might. "You said so yourself!"
Their eyes slitted. They knew they'd wandered onto a mine field, one they themselves had planted. But they didn't know how or where to get to safety.
I waved the tape of The Taming of the Shrew. "Uppity women. Marriage customs. Male Chauvinist Pigs. What is the perfect wife. What it means to be pushed around."
"But—" Rita said.
"No buts about it! You yourself told me you cared about those issues, so go to it!"
They looked like doomed woodland creatures paralyzed by oncoming headlights.
Which was fine with me. You get hard in this line of work. I pushed my advantage, and by the time the three of us left the classroom, one of us was researching the rights of married women, one of us was investigating spousal abuse, and one of us was as happy as an English teacher can be, given that she has a head cold and no idea what she just set in motion.
© Gillian Roberts.