She stood six feet tall. Well that is how I remember her. And she was a handsome woman. That word is rarely used today but it describes Miss Brett to the tee. She wore double-breasted jackets with matching pleated skirts and she had a habit of placing one hand inside the left lapel as she taught. And while she talked she paced the front of the room so we had to follow her movements as we listened. She was our English teacher.
I remember the first day she walked into class. My friend,Sonny, who sat across the aisle from me had challenged me to a game of hockey. Yes right there, in the classroom. Our rulers were hockey sticks and the grey and white eraser was a puck. The goal posts were the legs of our chairs .We remained seated and held our sticks down by the side of our desks and we’d attempt to flick the eraser between the legs of the opposite desk. I had just shot the puck past Sonny’s stick , through the opening and scored_ at the instant Miss B made her entrance. My hurrah stopped at Hurrrrrrrrrr and died right there. My arms froze in mid-air,then weakened and melted back to my desk. And her eyes and mine locked. This was not going to be a stare down. You could just see she was seasoned by many a hard as nails pupil in her career. And I was a student. Yes a STUDENT. I never got into trouble. My marks were good and I wouldn’t say POOP if my mouth were full of it.
Did that matter to her? Not a wit. I could tell that this was going to be a very painful experience. She said not a word. Her lips were tight, a line across the bottom third of her face . And there was absolutely no expression. Not a trace of a frown nor a smile. But she held me in her gaze as she slowly and deliberately strutted towards my desk. I lowered my head and waited. Everyone in the class was silent. No one would dare drop a pin if they could.
She stopped right next to my shoulder. I didn’t dare look up at this ten foot monster. Instead I folded up into myself like a sheet of paper in a flame. My heart beat a dirge and I trembled in dread. I expected to be hauled out of the seat, propelled to the classroom door, and God knows what else.
She bent down. She didn’t bend her legs but folded from the waist. Her laced shoes were flat on the floor and from my view there was a perfectly straight torso with a head hanging somewhere near my right ear. The lips moved. I could barely hear. The words were precise, clipped, and unmistakably threatening . But all they said was, ” Don’t you ever do that again in my class.” No one else could hear. It was just a whisper. She drew herself up to full height, walked back to the front of the class and began her teaching.
I sat, my face flaming, in total embarrassment. I was fifteen and how I hated her. My fifteen year old mind wished her tongue would fall out, lightning would strike her dead, the flames of hell would engulf her. How dare she embarrass me like that! I was a good student. I never got into any trouble. It was the only time a teacher had ever chastised me.
Oh how the young mind can twist things and fail to see the broader picture.
It took me weeks to get over that day. But she had certainly made an impact. I dared not turn my head when she came into the class. I was forced to pay attention. And pay attention I did. I listened as she told the stories of George Elliot who had to use a man’s name so that her writing would be taken seriously. I listened as she told us about the love relationship between Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her husband, Robert. I heard her tell of Emily Carr, her artistry and her authorship. She taught us about the French Revolution , the problems that precipitated it and the horrors and heroes of that era as we read A Tale of Two Cities. And we examined issues like euthanasia that arose in the pastoral poem, David and the dilemma of war in The Man he Killed.
She stimulated our minds and she was the original Iron Lady. I had never had a teacher like her and none ever did measure up to her. She knew her subject and taught more than the curriculum called for. And she kept order in her class with a mere look. She commanded respect because of her knowledge and love of her subject and her expectation that we would be attentive and engaged.
When I chose to become a teacher, she was always in my mind as the epitome of excellence in that profession. And whenever I had to deal with undesirable student behaviour I remembered how she handled it. A private whisper achieved more than a public roar.