I had other classes in seventh grade—not just science with Mr. Gisborne, the Crazy One. Some of the other classes and teachers I actually liked. I’ve always enjoyed English classes. Getting to read and write all the time—what could be better? There were parts of English I always hated, though. I’d done so much reading in my life that sometimes I thought the books and stories the teachers gave us were pretty juvenile. And the vocabulary and spelling lessons? Again—all the reading I’d done made all of our classwork seem pretty … elementary. I’m not bragging—just telling the truth.
In seventh grade I had a very good English teacher, Ms. Medwin,[i] a very young woman (just in her first year, I found out later) who made mistakes every day but who was so smart and funny that no one really cared that she goofed up now and then. You know what I mean? Forgetting that she’d already told our class something. Or asking for us to turn in an assignment she hadn’t given us—or forgetting to ask for one that she had assigned. Mixing up our names. Mispronouncing names.
But no one really cared too much, mostly because we could tell that she liked us—not always the case with a teacher. And in the boys’ case, it didn’t hurt that she was very attractive, too. They—the boys—couldn’t turn their eyes away from her. An advantage for a teacher, I guess.
She had a very unusual first name—Thomasina. I saw it once on a piece of paper on her desk. And then another time I heard another teacher in the hall call her “Tommy” (rhyming with show me). Very odd. But I liked Ms. Medwin—liked her a lot as the year rolled along and things … happened.
The first of those “things” was not long after Gil and I had our weird early-morning detention. In English class later that very day, Ms. Medwin had us look in our literature books at some poems by Edgar Lee Masters. I have to say that most kids in my class didn’t like poems—except the ones by Shel Silverstein and Dr. Seuss that they remembered from early childhood. And out at lunch I’d heard the boys shout out some verses with dirty words in them.
But Ms. Medwin liked to read poems aloud—with lots of energy and enthusiasm—and she encouraged us to do the same when we read them aloud—which we had to do in her class, all the time. Gradually, I could see the other kids coming to like poetry more and more. To look forward to the days when Ms. Medwin would say, “Take out your literature books. Let’s read some poems.”
Well, Masters, she told us, wrote a famous collection of poems called Spoon River Anthology, poems that are voices from the cemetery in Spoon River, Illinois. (There actually is a Spoon River that flows through the southeastern part of the state—but no town with that name: I looked it up.) That’s right: All the speakers in the poem are dead. They are talking from beyond the grave, commenting about their lives in all sorts of ways. They were happy, sad, angry, depressed, frustrated, and on and on—expressing just about every emotion that a human being is capable of expressing.[ii]
Here’s one that Ms. Medwin read aloud in class that day. Before she read it to us, though, she wrote the word haggard on the board and asked if anyone knew what it meant. No one did (except me, but I’d learned to keep my mouth shut at such moments). She told us that haggard has had all sorts of meanings—from a wild female hawk to a witch. (That got everyone’s attention.) And as an adjective, it can mean wild- or crazy-looking. Starved-looking. That sort of thing. (I knew what was going to happen later on—and I was right: Kids calling one another haggard out in the halls!)
Anyway, then she read Masters’ poem “Ollie McGee” to us …
Have you seen walking through the village
A man with downcast eyes and haggard face?
That is my husband who, by secret cruelty
Never to be told, robbed me of my youth and my beauty;
Till at last, wrinkled and with yellow teeth,
And with broken pride and shameful humility,
I sank into the grave.
But what think you gnaws at my husband’s heart?
The face of what I was, the face of what he made me!
These are driving him to the place where I lie.
In death, therefore, I am avenged.
We must have talked for half an hour about that poem—kids saying all kinds of things about what cruelty does to other people. Some even told stories about cruelties done to them at home, at school, other places. And how those acts made them feel—about school, about other people, about themselves. It was an amazing conversation, one of the most unusual—and honest—of my entire school career.
Then we read a few more of Masters’ poems but didn’t talk too much. And then Ms. Medwin asked, “How would you like to write something from beyond the grave?”
There was actual cheering in that class that period. We were excited about the idea. But not as excited as when Ms. Medwin said, “Good, good. We’re going to go to the old cemetery next Tuesday.”