Finally, I sit down. Woodstove (still) burning (third day of spring). Everything that eats here (including the feral cat under the porch and whatever snake shed its pretty impressive skin at the foot of the basement stairs) has hopefully been fed or demands no menu from me. Girls are upstairs glued to a screen, winning that argument for today. What can I say? Uncle. Watch Netflix. Play Guess-the-Logo on your IPhone. I’m sitting down! I’m warm! Spring really IS coming and I am going to put my feet up and watch its approach if it takes the next six weeks.
The cobweb is one strand. One strand with a loop on the end as if it has been sent out on some reconnaissance. Or a minuscule lasso. A tethered smoke ring from a Lilliputian cigar? Should I swipe it? (This would require me standing up). Or do I just sit here and brainstorm metaphors?
The next day, I do take it down and wave it around a little to see it move. Over the woodstove burning (fourth day of spring), it finds its own current, a balloon-less string on its way. It resists snapping, has collected dust along its filament. I could watch it for hours, but then it reminds me of Mrs. Miller.
The imaginative leap, she might have taught us, is essential to good writing. Take a risk. Let it be bad. Slay your darlings. Write what you know. These lines would have left me awestruck. But Mrs. Miller did what we came to expect from English class. We read a book. We answered questions about the book. We read our answers out loud. We spent a few weeks diagramming sentences. We returned to a book, to answering (in cursive!) the comprehension questions posed, to showing up the next day to raise our hands.
Except for one day.
People said Mrs. Miller smoked a lot of pot. It was 1976, Westerly Junior High. It would not have surprised any of us to discover that the teachers’ lounge was an opium den, the adults perched on mushrooms sucking on hookahs. Suffocating clouds billowed out of there each time the door opened. Who knew what they were smoking between classes? And who cared? We had our own worries. We were caught in a fashion morass somewhere between the BeeGees and Black Sabbath. Everyone owned a blowdryer but no one used gel or mousse or anything else that might ameliorate the desication and volumizing of that kind of blasted heat. Some people, inspired by Welcome Back, Kotter, got perms. But those were mostly the boys. Our bodies regularly betrayed us by menstruating on the day we tried out our new (white!) painters pants or by replicating Vesuvius on the ends of our noses, by granting girls mustaches and denying them to boys, by subjecting us to feet so large, we looked like a race of L-shaped people.
Mrs. Miller did have a weird kind of a lisp. It derived, I think, from the fact that her lower jaw protruded over her upper jaw and shifted a few inches to the right of the rest of her face. These days, someone would break that jaw, wire it shut, prescribe Ensure, and charge her parents six thousand dollars, but back then, she let her hair grow in dark crimped waves, donned her corduroys and Frye boots and assumed a beatnik coolness. Or that of a complete burn-out. She sat behind her desk, peered at us beneath her heavy lids and refused to disguise her boredom.
We filed in as if it was any old day, our postures reflecting our surety that life would never get better than junior high. Whatever Mrs. Miller had in store for us, it would be at the very least, an escape from the humiliation of our daily lives. This time, Mrs. Miller didn’t even bother to stand up. The bell rang and she raised her head. “Write about this,” she said. She took her number 2 Ticonderoga and rolled it across her desk until it fell off. Then, she put her head down and passed out.
My youngest daughter is about to take 15 (not a misprint — FIFTEEN) PARCC tests (The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers). My middle daughter needs to pass the Biology MCAS in a few weeks. My oldest daughter is taking SAT prep courses two nights a week, aiming for the magic number that will get her into the college of her dreams that we cannot afford. All of the above are good reasons to re-instate those smoking rooms of old. Our teachers might have been killing themselves, but at least they weren’t killing us.
I can also tell you this: no educational assessment I faced and certainly none that my daughters will conquer, could compare to that day in eighth grade language arts for me.
A whole period of creative writing?!?! It would never come again. That sparkling gemstone of a day. A day that indulged those of us who, even then, studied cobwebs, not with the intention of ridding our pristine homes of them, but as a distraction from real life, from the parts of speech, the algorithms, the unsightly evidence of hormones disrupting every surface of our once beautiful selves.