I have a project. The plan is to organize the boxes of completely randomized detritus stacked in the basement. The last box I opened had apparently not been explored for almost half a century. As I pulled stuff out of it, old photos, dead batteries, college souvenirs and snapshots from scarce remembered vacation trips, moldy mementos from a long-dead courtship, a miasma of memory farts filled the air. Tiny bursts of recollection like snapshots yellowed and curled. Digging clams barefoot in the tidal flats. The huge black and yellow spiders in the flower garden. The snort of the horses when I came to let them out on a winter morning. The smell of the oak trees surrounding the Buckingham Friends School where I attended grades 1 through 8.
Both Mrs. Rowe and I started first grade together, she fresh from teachers college, I newly graduated from kindergarten. I fell ill with appendicitis one day which scared the wits out of her, but we both survived the experience.
Mrs. Stetson taught the second grade. She didn’t like my handwriting, the first in a long line of critics with a similar view.
Miss Yole had third grade. I sat next to Laurie who drew people with square feet.
In fourth grade Mr. Rowe taught us how to make anemometers out of paper cups, and barometers out of bottles of water (I forget how they worked). We measured humidity with a long hair glued to a stick and read biographies of notable historical figures, such as Squanto, out of orange books that were new and smelled nice.
Then there was fifth grade which was commanded by Mrs Haines who was magnificent. As I understand her story, pieced together from many sources over several decades, she was married to a man who proved to be unsatisfactory in some way. Maybe a drunk, or an abuser, or a gambler. In any case, she gave him the boot, took her 2 daughters, and moved back to her family’s farm where she lived until the infirmities of great age took her to a nursing home where she ended her days among nurses, doctors, and other residents who loved and admired her.
But before that happened, she was a young mother with no marketable skills who needed money. Back in those distant times you didn’t need to have a college degree or even teacher training in order to become a teacher, so that is what she set out to do. As a birthright Quaker I imagine she had little difficulty getting a test run from the local Quaker school, and so it was that she came to the Buckingham Friends School where she enriched the lives of hundreds of 10-12-year-olds over 4 decades.
When I first knew her she seemed old and huge and scary. In fact, she was probably in her 40s, short and solid and only seemed scary because she didn’t bother with the perky false cheerfulness people use with children. Instead she spoke to us with the seriousness of one grown-up to another. Heady stuff. She was the very embodiment of “gravitas.” She was one of the last people to use the Quaker plain speak referring to us as “thee” which may have been part of her mystique. Those students she didn’t terrify adored her.
She imposed discipline by allowing us to believe that she was omniscient and all-powerful. One of the methods she used to achieve this was to know who had gotten up to what. So when a window was broken or somebody had put caterpillars in the principle’s car, she would collar some child on the way to recess who might well have done it, but probably not, and declare “This is a very bad thing thee has done!” The chosen child would then scamper off, protesting innocence, find out who had done it, and report back in a timely manner. Of course neither the snitch nor Mrs. Haines ever breathed a word about the arrangement, and so it was that justice was done and Mrs. Haines’s reputation as omnipotent was maintained.
When not involved in law enforcement, she told us about dragon flies and volcanoes and acorns and thrushes and pollywogs. Squirrels and possums and worms. She drilled us in math and introduced us to algebra, geometry, and kindness.
In the end, though, the most important gift I received from Mrs. Haines was the importance of “Why?” There is no more important or powerful question and it can and should be applied to everything.
Why is that politician saying that?
Why is the car making that noise.
Why is that a good (or bad) thing?
Why are there so many mice this year?
Why do I dislike that person
…or like the other one?
Why did I save all this crap?
Well, I have an answer to the last one. When I was a young thing, I thought 5 years was forever, and so looking at school photos from that long ago was sort of like opening a Pharaoh’s tomb. And so I put stuff like that into time capsules of a sort, bundles with rubber bands around them, to amuse my future self, although I could not, at the time, have conceived of the amount of time that has passed to reach this moment. But being both a packrat and a casual housekeeper, a truly beatable combination, I find my elderly self thanking my larval stage for this dusty gift of a window to a distant world I once knew.