We all dreaded getting Miss Avery for the fifth grade — those of us in the fourth grade, awaiting the next year’s classroom assignment. “She’s tough,” one of us remarked; “real bad tough,” affirmed another.
At the edge of change, we were mulling over our future. In so doing, we were dealing in our own way with larger matters that confront all of us human beings: Luck, both good and bad, chance and circumstance, as they befall us, help shape our destiny.
So it went—American youngsters in the late 1930s, a terrible world war around the corner, a stern, demanding teacher who raised her voice and reportedly raised a stick, too (the blackboard pointer, which rumor had her using aggressively, punitively against those who earned her disfavor or worse). “You cross her, and she’ll come at you,” we’d heard.
I was assigned to “room five,” where she supposedly reigned supreme, if not tyrannically. To this day I see us all sitting in that classroom, headed by Bernicia Avery, a Vermont lady, heavyset, with white hair and alert blue eyes that darted everywhere and sometimes concentrated mightily, unrelievedly on the one of us who had gotten her ire up. To this day, also, I can hear the words that came my way one school morning: “Bobby! I’ve called your name twice before.” Lifting my eyes, I realized how closely I was being watched by my fellow students, who knew well the dramatic possibilities immediately ahead: “This is a school,” she bellowed. “You are not at home, alone in your bedroom or study room, reading a book on your own. You are here, with others, and we all deserve your attention as much as that book, valuable as it is!”
Our eyes met, stayed fixed on one another for a second or two —and then my head lowered. I stared at the book, then the floor beyond it. She had been sitting behind her big teacher’s desk, but now she got herself up. Ominously, she had a ruler in her right hand—not the notorious blackboard pointer, thank God, but a 12-inch ruler. Bang. That ruler went crashing on the desk of Sally Davis, sitting on the first desk’s seat, four or five ahead of mine (we tall boys got put further back, a measure of “God’s grace,” to use an expression Miss Avery herself summoned every once in awhile, when she wanted to explain the apparently inexplicable — a merciful turn of events that happened for no apparent reason).
As she began her walk, she spoke: “We are entitled to travel on our own paths, but here and now we are walking together.” I finally lifted my eyes to acknowledge the speaker, the ruler of us seated young ones who had all attention focused on her magical (malevolent, some in the room thought) right arm, held a bit high. Suddenly she waved the ruler briefly and then crash on Doris Newman’s desk, whose occupant memorably flinched, we all sure enough noticed.
Then, this terse finale, which six decades later holds fast to my head’s awareness. “We should pay attention to others, as well as ourselves.” A pause, while we took in the admonition. “We spend time looking at ourselves and looking out for ourselves, but please, let us look to our right and to our left, to our front and to what’s going on to our back. Please, let us be mindful of others, as we hope they will be of us!”
Then, to our considerable surprise, she was at the blackboard, not in pursuit of that famously feared pointer but with chalk in her right hand. Word for word she scratched the message out for us, now to notice hard and long. When she was through with the chalk, she asked us all to read out loud, in unison, those words: a classroom’s chorus to a written moral aria.
Needless to say, we obliged, even as we noticed our teacher giving her spoken best to the words she had dispatched in our direction. When we’d all finished, she suggested that we salute the American flag. Puzzled, surprised, at a loss, we nevertheless went along — a relief, maybe, to be going through ethical rote, rather than the reflection that had been prompted in us.
Back home that day’s afternoon, I told my mother of the instruction offered us. We’d all been told to write down what our teacher had called for us to witness and consider — and there it was, now mine, in my hand, for my mom to contemplate. She read my words quietly, then read them out loud — not to me, but to herself. I can see her looking out the window, often her wont, then her eyes directed at me, and then her words: “If more people lived up to those words, the world would be a better place to live.” Yes, I sure agreed in my thinking — my mother now had linked arms with my teacher, and I was very much a link between them.
Soon enough, we were on to other matters, tasks — my mom cooking and I readying myself, with some milk and cinnamon buns, for strenuous playing outdoors. As I left I noticed my mother still looking at my scribble — and then her decision to pin it on the bulletin board she kept for herself in the pantry. She saw me seeing and said: “We’ve got to look out for other people, as well as for ourselves.” She’d repeated what we’d heard said in school, but her voice told her son, perched between home and the street, that this maternal declaration was deeply felt and so ought to be kept in mind for the future days to follow in such abundance.
Here I am, in another lifetime, so to speak, remembering Miss Avery and her times of tough insistence: a teacher who wanted us to learn our letters and numbers, yes, but a teacher who also wanted to keep us a bit free of the self-preoccupation that tempts us often, a bit free to turn outside ourselves so we might be fellow citizens to others. A big freedom, indeed—to be pushed now and then from the mind’s inevitable self-consciousness, in the direction of our fellow wayfarers and citizens. Human inwardness given the outward life of human connection—an expressive and introspective freedom that both defines our humanity and gives it the sovereignty of enactment in the everydayness of our time spent here living with others as well as ourselves.
Robert Coles is editor of DoubleTake magazine.