Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Of Scarlet Letters and Social Fetters

My mother taught The Scarlet Letter at James A. Garfield High School in Garrettsville, Ohio, during her tenure there between 1956-1966.  I remember seeing her copy on the dining room table.  I was not curious enough to pick it up and read it.

When I finally did read it--in college--I remember being horrified that the minister had committed fornication.  The minister!  This was shocking to me for any number of reasons.  I'd grown up in a much more puritanical time (Ozzie and Harriet was still on television; no one cursed in Hollywood movies--not even bad guys whom John Wayne had just shot in the guts.)  And my own family history was profoundly religious.  My grandfather was a Disciples of Christ minister and professor in a seminary; so was my uncle; my dad was ordained, as well.  There was even a time when I majored in philosophy at Hiram College (one term only; Hegel cured me), thinking that I would follow the family tradition.  But after that single term I realized I preferred sin and reading novels, so I shifted my major to English, which accommodated both of my interests.

I didn't teach Hawthorne in the Aurora Schools (I had mostly 7th and 8th graders), but when I did my student teaching at West Geauga High School the winter months of 1966, I walked right into Hawthorne, as the following excerpt from an unpublished (and now copyrighted!) memoir shows.  I begin with a brief description of my supervising teacher (whose name I've changed) and of my first experience observing, then teaching, his class of juniors:

He was short, slender, fortyish, wore glasses, looked scholarly, had thick copper hair, a ruddy pitted complexion.  That day he was teaching a Hawthorne story—“Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment”—the one about the old doctor who gives some water from the fountain of youth to four of his aged friends (three men and a woman), who drink it down ever more greedily as they discover they are growing younger with each swallow.  The men begin competing aggressively for the attentions of the now-younger, now-sexier woman.  But in their exuberance, they accidentally break the glass container holding the elixir, and slowly, inexorably, they return to their bitter old age.

            But earlier, while they were prancing around, sly Hawthorne says:

Yet, by a strange deception, owing to the duskiness of the chamber, and the antique dresses which they still wore, the tall mirror is said to have reflected the figures of the three old, gray, withered grandsires, ridiculously contending for the skinny ugliness of a shrivelled grandam.

            Frank began class that day by asking if any of the girls had a mirror.  They all did.  He asked if he could borrow one a minute.  A girl in the front row dug one out of her purse, handed it to him.  He held it to her face and asked, What do you see?  She said, Myself.  He did the same thing to another kid. What do you see?  Reply: Myself.  He did it several more times.  The kids, initially puzzled, were now getting amused.  And then Frank stopped.  You all said you saw yourselves, right?  Pause.  Sounds of agreement.  Are you sure?  Does the mirror really show you your self?  Pause.  Let’s see what Hawthorne says.

            I thought it was the coolest damn thing I’d ever seen.  Those kids were engaged.  They were interested.  They talked all period about youth and age, about self-deception and vanity.  I loved it but was already wondering if I could possibly come up with something that effective—day after day after day.  I was pretty sure I couldn’t.

            I was also wondering about two huge guys sitting clear in the back of the room, yards away from the rest of us.  I’d noticed them when I’d first come in the room, of course, but I did not look long.  In black leather jackets, blue jeans, heavy boots, they resembled those thuggish characters whom cops kill in the movies.  Either one of them could have kicked my ass without the slightest effort.  Frank’s too.  Both of ours at once?  No problem.  But these two ignored me, ignored Frank and the class.  Talked quietly with each other.  Chortled now and then.  Paged through magazines.  Dozed a little. 

            Afterwards, I gushed my approval of the lesson to Frank, who glowed with pleasure.  Then I asked about the two behemoths in the back.

            Oh, them.  We have an arrangement.  If they sit there and cause no trouble, I’ll pass them.


            When I arrived for my first official day of duty at West Geauga High School, I looked in Frank’s room.  No one there yet.  I stopped in the main office.  Are you Mr. Dyer? asked a secretary.  I smiled, still unaccustomed to that appellation.  (Mr. Dyer!  It sounded so … adult.  My dad’s name!)


            Mr. Abbott is ill and won’t be in today.

            I wondered what that meant.  Wondered who would substitute.  Wondered, even, if I could go home—call Dad for a ride.  I started thinking about my bed.

            His plans are on his desk.

            I still didn’t get it.  What should I do?

            She smiled.  I’m sure he’s left adequate plans for you.

            For me?

            Yes, you will be covering his classes today.

             I looked at the clock.  Five minutes till Home Room.  On the desk was a manila folder.  Inside it were his class rosters and seating charts.  And a single sheet of paper with a scrawled note.  Do “The Birthmark” today.  It’s in the book.  See you tomorrow.  F. A.

            “The Birthmark,” another Hawthorne story that I’d read three years earlier and not since.  I looked at the clock.

            Two minutes.

            I found the teacher’s edition of the anthology, located the story, skimmed it.

            One minute.

            A loud, jarring bell, then students were trickling into the room.  Staring at me.  I tried to look friendly, competent, authoritarian, not-to-be-fucked-with.  Most of the guys were much bigger than I.  Some of the girls were very sexy.  (I was only three or four years older.)  I fiercely kept my eyes away from anything but their faces.

            I had no idea what to do during Home Room period.  So I asked someone small and timorous.  You need to take attendance, he said.  I removed the class lists and seating charts from the folder.  There’s slips in the drawer, the kind little fellow added.


            Slips in the drawer.  He pointed.  Attendance slips.  You send one to the office … with one of us.

            Oh.  I found one, called the roll.  (Laughter when I mispronounced a name.)

            I filled out the slip, then stood there, unsure what to do next.

            So I asked the small and timorous one to take it.

            It’s not his turn! bellowed some beast from the back.

            Oh?  Whose turn is it?

            Mine! roared Beast.

            Is not! came cries from around the room.

            You take it, I told the small and timorous one.

            Take it and you’re dead! promised Beast.

            We’ll have no threats in this room! I said, wondering if I would have to fight for my life my first five minutes.  The room grew moderately quiet.  They had not yet sensed my weakness and were unsure how to proceed.  Beast was making a decision.  I waited.  Then he shrugged and put his head down on the desk and appeared to go to sleep.

            Here.  Smiling, I handed the slip to the small, timorous one.  Who took it reluctantly, headed for the hallway.
            Later, I wondered: What would have happened if Beast had elected to feed rather than sleep?


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