During the early days of our study of Frankenstein the students were taking notes on things I was telling them about Mary Shelley. And here I have a confession to make: I was not all that well prepared. I did not know as much about her as I should have. But I figured I’d get better at it—I’d learn along with the students. (Teachers do that a lot more than you’d think.)
One day I came into my classroom at lunch (when it was normally empty), and I noticed right away that there was something that looked like a letter on my desk. I walked over and picked up what was indeed a white envelope. My name on the outside. But something about it was strange: The writing was not in pencil or ballpoint pen. The ink was from an old-fashioned fountain pen. Or—and I know this sounds ridiculous—a quill. An old-fashioned goosefeather quill. And the handwriting, which I did not recognize, was thin and faint, as if the writer were running out of ink—or nerve.
I opened it.
Dear Mr. Walton,
Please don’t misunderstand me. I don’t mean to criticize you. I like your class very much. Don’t you think it’s strange that your name is the same name as the Arctic explorer Robert Walton in Frankenstein? Do you believe it’s just a simple coincidence? Or do you believe in things like fate? And destiny? Are there secrets you have never told anyone? Are there things you wish you didn’t know?
Some of what you’ve told us about Mary Shelley is not really accurate. Did you know that? Frankenstein was not her only popular book. There were others. The Last Man and Lodore were also popular. You should read them.
I blushed when I read this letter. Whoever wrote it was absolutely right: I knew that some of the things I was saying were not true. But I would say things I wasn’t all that sure about in a very authoritative tone of voice. (Another common teacher strategy.)
But who had sent the note? The handwriting, as I said, was not familiar. And it looked like an adult’s hand, not an eighth grader’s. Another thing: There were absolutely no errors of any kind in the note. Spelling, punctuation, usage—all perfect. This, too, made me doubt that a student had written it.
But who else?
I received more notes. A couple of times a week they would appear on my desk. Or in my faculty mailbox. Always correcting something I’d said in class. Or giving me information I could use in class. Or asking a question, like this one: Don’t you think it’s strange that there’s another teacher in this building—Mrs. Clairmont—who has the same last name as someone in Mary Shelley’s life? Mary’s father remarried after his wife died. His second wife was named Mary Jane Clairmont, and she had a daughter named Jane. You know, don’t you, the first name of the Mrs. Clairmont who teaches in this school? It’s Jane! Just like Mary’s stepsister! Can you explain that?
That day at lunch I confronted Mrs. Clairmont in the faculty room. I walked over to the table where she was sitting, eating her lunch (always, always it was cottage cheese and fruit and saltines) and correcting papers with savage strokes of a large red marker.
“Thanks for the notes,” I said casually, thinking I’d be able to catch her by surprise, shock her into a confession.
“Pardon me?” she answered. And she looked at me with such pure blankness in her eyes—such innocence—that I knew she had no idea what I was talking about. “What notes are you talking about?”
I looked in her eyes again, just to be sure. She was hiding nothing. I was positive.
“Oh, did I say ‘notes’?” I bluffed. “I meant, thanks for giving me the idea to teach Frankenstein. It’s been a lot of fun.”
“Reading comic books in class, Mr. Walton,” she sniffed, “is not really what I had in mind.”
“Oh, well,” I said, feeling myself blush, “they’re just, you know, an introduction, a way to, uh, motivate the class. Get them interested.”
Mrs. Clairmont merely tccchhhhed with her tongue and teeth and returned to her red-marker attack on her students’ papers. I left, feeling as I always did with her—as if she wanted to scrawl a big red grade on me, too. And I knew what grade it would be.