It seemed odd to be sitting on Nellie Dreiss’ front porch, with nothing better on my mind than the massive maple across the street that probably was no taller than I was fifty years ago. My tree-gazing had me wondering: What moist rich loam was hidden deep inside the ground where the tree’s roots spent decades doing their quiet work? That tree had achieved a blossoming glory that had outlived Mrs. Dreiss and no doubt would leave me in the dust.
It’s odd too that my sister Aurora had bought the house from Mrs. Dreiss. My sister, now retired, had been a school teacher for the better part of her life, so the old house, modest and well-kept, had a lineage of educators that went back almost a century.
I’m not sure I really liked Mrs. Dreiss. She was my English teacher for my senior year at Fordson High (in Dearborn, Michigan), and there were times when she rubbed me wrong. I somehow became aware of a controversy stirred by one of the papers I wrote for her class. Because I was a pitcher for the Fordson High baseball team I resented the fact that our field didn’t have a raised pitcher’s mound. So I wrote a paper and made my pitch for raising the mound. At the time the English faculty at Fordson High apparently was having a debate about what subjects were worth writing about. Mr. Cardone, who the year before had required us to know the “arguments” for all the books of Milton’s Paradise Lost (we were tested on them), thought it acceptable for me to write about raising a pitcher’s mound. Mrs. Dreiss did not, because she did not find the topic sufficiently challenging.
The A-minus she gave me on the paper irked me, but I had to admit I liked her class. Everything we talked about was interesting, seemed important and serious. We were never bored and usually left the class talking about what we had been talking about. I never knew what I was supposed to know or what would be on a test, and I can’t remember what I learned.
What I remember most about her class are the words “ethical injustice” and “just because.” The subject this time was Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. In my review of the book I wrote that Raskolnikov, the book’s main character, committed an “ethical injustice” when he split the old pawnbroker’s head open with an axe. Mrs. Dreiss circled in red the words “ethical injustice” and covered them with a big question mark. What did they mean, these words?
My teacher and I had words in front of the whole class.
“It’s obvious,” I said to her.
“No, it’s not,” she replied. “Think about those two words, the way you put them together.”
“What I mean is obvious,” I said again. “Those words mean what they say.”
“Are you sure you’re saying what you mean?” she came back at me.
We both raised our voices.
“How do you know it’s obvious?”
Her question floated in the air for the longest time, and I think I can still see everyone in the class looking up at it as if it were circling their minds too.
“Just…because,” I said to put a stop to her silliness.
And everyone laughed.
Our little battle ended right there. She just smiled and nodded as she let go of me, allowing my self-esteem to have its little victory. I’d had the last word,
For years those words kept haunting me. “Ethical injustice.” What Raskolnikov did to that poor woman was really wrong. How could I have been wrong about that?
I got a B-minus on the paper but had no complaints about the grade. Crime and Punishment had really grabbed me, but I also knew I had not given my paper enough time. She irked me, but somehow she just knew.
Eventually I became an English teacher too. There I was, in front of all those eyes watching me the way I had eyed Mrs. Dreiss years ago. And one day, when I was well into my teaching career, I found myself drifting off into a deaf silence while I waited for a student to quit jabbering so I could enlighten him. The words “ethical injustice” crept into that deaf silence, and suddenly the lights went on.
Ethical injustice: An injustice that is ethical? Can injustices be ethical? Can ethics be unjust? What was I thinking when I wrote those words? I had said both more and less than I meant. I had not made sense.
Mrs. Dreiss already had retired by then, and my sister Aurora had bought her house without my knowing Mrs. Dreiss had spent the better part of her life in it. As I sat on the porch gazing at that massive maple tree across the street I began believing in ghosts.
I pay a lot of attention to words these days–not so much to spelling but to what words mean and how meaningless they so often are. I like breaking words open to see what’s inside. The word “influence,” for example, suggests “in-flowing,” a concept so simple we seldom conjure it when we use the word. How do influences work? How do powers flow in–and out?
These days teachers are under intense pressure to make their influence obvious. They have to itemize their goals and objectives, dot every “i” on their lesson plans. Their worthiness depends on their students passing standardized tests, and their teaching performance evaluation is tied to measurable results. It troubles us too little that many things that can’t be measured are not part of the measurement–dysfunctional behaviors in a student’s home, for example, or how many advertisements a child consumes every single day. Also immeasurable are the curiosity, creativity, critical thinking, and no-nonsense seriousness Mrs. Dreiss generated in her talk-filled classroom years ago.
She was no doubt like many good teachers today–fully aware of the requirements of their disciplines, conscientious in their planning to hold students to high standards, ceaselessly trying to figure out ways to get students to understand, perform, behave, and frustrated every night by a sense that their efforts have fallen on deaf ears and are rebuked by hostile critics. I see now that the untidy controversies that swirled in Mrs. Driess’ classroom were part of her well-conceived plan to allow for the realistic free flow of important attitudes stirred by challenging subject matter. She became important to me because she was patient about outcomes, willing to wait years for the lights to go on. There is no test for what I eventually learned from her. She probably would be fired today, or if tenured sent off to summer school with orders to improve her lesson plans.
When I’m out and about with my sister she sometimes happens upon a student she had in one of her classes years ago. They always seem so pleased to see her again I’m sure some good in-flowing between them has occurred. I want Mrs. Dreiss to be more than a ghost in my sister’s house. I’d like to thank her, yes, and tell her I became a teacher too–I’m not entirely sure why, one with a red pen in my mind poised to strike out at words that make no sense. And if she still has her red pen handy I’d like to put her to work on some writing of my own that did not come about just because.