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Education Commentary

The Story of Miss Jennie and Miss Willie

By Elizabeth Spencer — May 27, 1987 14 min read

The following excerpt is from An Apple for My Teacher: Twelve Authors Tell About Teachers Who Made the Difference. The book contains “little about the specifics of teaching,” writes the editor, Louis D. Rubin Jr., “but a great deal about the art of being a teacher.”

In the essay below, the novelist Elizabeth Spencer, one of the contributors, remembers two grade-school teachers in Carrollton, Miss. The author’s books include Fire in the Morning, No Place for an Angel, The Snare, and The Salt Line.

In a small town that’s been there for ages, some people look out and some look in. (I look back, myself, quite a lot.) I now can see that the in-lookers far outnumbered the outlookers. Back then, though, I wasn’t given to that kind of seeing: I mainly just looked around me.

Photographs of those days powerfully back up my memories. From my birthday in late July onwards, the sun became so dominant there was no way even to think about it. Grass parched, people squinted at the camera, everybody under 20, it seems, went barefoot. This was before air-conditioning. Houses could offer wide hallways with doorways front and back, and some breezeways, others screened porches, good for keeping out bugs (if not all mosquitoes), nice for naps, and a necessity for sleeping at night.

As children, we played incessantly--in trees, in the creek, on the tennis court. We sometimes must have talked about what those late summer days were moving toward, sure and steady as the sluggish drift of the creek.

The schoolhouse was a two-story red-brick building with cement steps up the front, set on a wide campus with swings and sliding-boards to one side, basketball courts to the other. It was right up the street from our house, scarcely a five-minute walk.

Once there, you had Miss Jennie. She was Mrs. McBride, really, a widow, but was always called “Miss Jennie.” As everybody, young and old, had always had her as their first teacher through grade 3, she drew a large part of the tremulous awe out of entering the new state of being. She was gentle, firm, and quick, with eyes that twinkled at you from behind round glasses with black wire rims. Her hair, black and gray, was drawn back in a knot. Being happy to be with children, she was often smiling. She wrote a large, clear hand, dealt with ruled tablets and different colored crayons and blackboards. Penmanship, numbers, the alphabet, with letters large and small. Next, reading aloud, memorizing, multiplying. Three grades in one room. How did she manage? She and God would know the answer, certainly not I. We sang. Everything was all right in our Father’s house (pointing upward), and it was joy, joy, joy (circling hands) over there.

We came into the room (quietly, if you please) while she stood at the open door. We marched out in files, following a small flag. Mounting upstairs to chapel once a week, we would go in rows carefully stairstepped by height, and all the older grades laughed as we paraded to our seats. Down in our classroom we also marched in and out for recesses, and raised hands for “being excused.”

Discipline? Stand in the corner with your face to the wall; write “I am sorry” 10 times on the blackboard; stay in after school; or, coming up to the front, have your hand bent back, palm up, and get five slaps with a ruler.

That last is the only one I remember catching; it didn’t hurt the hand like it hurt the pride. I sat through arithmetic trying not to cry.

Miss Jennie taught us the alphabet by Bible verses: “A good name is to be chosen ... ,” “Be ye kind one to another ... ,” “Create in me a clean heart .... " Asked for Bible verses in other groups, some of the smart boys used regularly to quote, “Jesus wept.” Miss Jennie was ready for that one. Not even when we got to J did we get to say “Jesus wept.” Her verse began with Jesus, all right, but was longer. So on through the alphabet.

Everybody’s parents approved of Miss Jennie; every child respected Miss Jennie; Miss Jennie was beloved. Faced with her greatest test, a woman who wanted a crazy, obstreperous child to learn with the rest, she let the child in, gave her a seat, and tied her to it. I used to see her writhing out of the corner of my eye. She once ran berserk and pushed me down on a brick walkway, cutting my lip. Miss Jennie sent upstairs for my brother to take me home, bleeding and bawling. I still have the scar.

Retired from teaching, Miss Jennie lived quietly in her house up near the Presbyterian Church, where she regularly taught the little children in Sunday school, right on to the end. She let out rooms, I understand, to difficult old ladies who must have been worse than any 1st or 2nd or 3rd grader, but could not be enjoined to stand in a corner, much less smacked with a ruler. A new primary-school building was named, of course, for her; there was never any way for Carrollton, Miss., ever to let her go. There was no way to think of Carrollton without her. Even to let go of her at the end of the 3rd grade was bad enough. I got scared all over, during July and August. The only cold spot in the world was the pit of my stomach. No longer to know precisely one’s place in line, to get “Well done” for saying the memorized verse, to write correctly the names of Columbus’s three ships, to march behind the little flag.

Who would teach us next? It was a real question because the Depression had struck and the school (I remember many worried conversations when my father returned from meetings of the school board) had hardly the money to operate.

During my last year in Miss Jennie’s room, two new students entered late in the year. They had been living somewhere else. They were sisters named Meade Marian (“Mimi”) and Frances Keenan. Mimi was always laughing, while Frances, quieter, had a good many thoughts of her own. They wore their little dresses much shorter than we were allowed to do, rather like little paper-doll children, skirts flaring up to the lace on their panties. In winter, when my mother would sometimes walk up to meet me after school, she would see them and say, ‘1 don’t see why those children’s legs aren’t freezing.” Maybe they were. Their air said that style was more important than discomfort. They knew what they were doing. The Keenan girls.

Late in August of that year we heard that the school had employed their mother, Mrs. Keenan, to teach grades 4 and 5. “Lucky to get her,” was my mother’s judgment. “All that family is smart and Willie especially.” She had come back from somewhere else to live there; her husband, a man no one seemed to know much about, was employed elsewhere.

I first saw my new teacher on a street uptown, walking on one of those sidewalks which, due to erosion and road-scraping, had got much higher through the years than the roadbed. I was riding in the family car. It was August-hot, blazing. She had on a bright blue dress with a flounce, almost to her ankles, and her long hair was caught up in a careless “bird’s nest” way, puffed out over the brow. All this looked interesting. She walked with her head down, rapidly, the flounce swinging. “There goes Willie Keenan,” my mother would say. “I bet she’s burning up in that dress.”

In early September we got new books from the druggist who always kept them. On the appointed day we entered our new room with caution, took seats and waited. She had arranged her desk. No playthings, cut-outs, colored stars or maps. Books. And a few flowers. The hair was the same as I’d seen. The voice was nothing we were used to. It came from other places. For one thing, speaking to anyone girl, it was “Darling.” We never used that word. Full of endearments-" Honey,” “Sweetheart,” “Precious,” “Baby,” “Sugar,” even “Sugarfoot” we had read “Darling,” maybe heard it in the picture show, but didn’t say it. Mrs. Keenan did.

She was wearing glasses: horn-rimmed, they slid down to the tip of her nose and stayed there. Her hair, rich brown laced with gray, frothed over her brow. I think now she must have been pretty in a taken for-granted way. She tapped the books. We would use them when we could, she said, but she had no use for very much that was in them. (Astounding rejection.) ''Take literature, for instance,” she went on. She paused. I must have heard that word before, but didn’t remember where. We had lots of books at home. We were always reading, or being read to. But I don’t remember hearing it called “literature” before. She said she had ordered another book for us. It would come.

From then on, awakened somehow by the words she had used, the sense of her return from far-off places, the climb up from young school to real school, the difference in her little girls’ dresses (one was now across the aisle from me), I could not wait for that book. Never had a Sears, Roebuck order been so fervently expected. I remember it still. It was a narrow, tall volume, bound in pink paper: One Hundred and One Best Poems. It may be (I don’t know) that she was never trained as a teacher. Laws about degrees in education came later. Mrs. Keenan would correct our arithmetic, give a passing hour to grammar and geography, but what she really liked was reading poetry. After lunch-hour recess was over, she saw us through some routine chore before she would open the pink book and read.

I guess the poems were way over our heads. There were Shelley’s “Ode to a Skylark,” and “Ode to the West Wind,” Kipling’s ''Recessional’’ and “Gunga Din,” “Abou Ben Adam” (I think she skipped that one), Browning’s “Incident at a French Camp,” and “How They Brought Good News from Aix to Ghent,” also MacCauley’s “Horatius at the Bridge,” even some Edgar Guest (skipped also).

One began “I saw the spires of Oxford! Against a cold grey sky.” This troubled me as I had been once or twice to Oxford, Miss., and knew there were not any spires there to speak of, certainly not cold gray ones. There were softer poems like “Annabel Lee,” and “‘To Helen” by Poe, and Sidney Lanier’s “Song of the Chattahoochie.”

She would explain things to us about these poems. Some odd phrases would have to be spelled out. “A kingdom by the sea” was not a real place, only where the poet imagined it, though he might have been, it was true, near the ocean. Then why couldn’t it be a kingdom? Maybe it was, darling. There was also “Thanatopsis” by William Cullen Bryant. I couldn’t make head or tail of it when I first read it, but I had a I cousin, older than I, who knew and quoted poetry, though he went to a larger school in another town. He would fill in if I started something. When I piped up that I’d read the one about “So live that when thy summons comes ... ,"he went right on with “to join that innumerable caravan that leads to that mysterious realm where each shall take his chamber .. . " I finally caught on. It was dying that was meant. “Approach thy grave,” etc. Until then, the sound of the words, the stately march of the rhythm were all I knew.

Each of these poems had a short preface of a few lines about the author, and a picture in a small oval of the poet’s face. Tennyson had whiskers. Shelley looked scared, Byron wore a white collar, Poe had funny eyes, Elizabeth Barrett Browning a fancy hairdo. Mrs. Keenan (or “Miss Willie” as some of us dared to call her) liked to read us ''The Bells” by Poe. When she read it, swaying from side to side, repeating “bells, bells, bells, bells, bells, bells, bells,” hairpins used to fallout of the nest above and scatter over the desk. She didn’t notice. N either did I. I used to feel uplifted, absorbed, not in that room at all.

She assigned us themes and let us write our own poems. This for me was easier than learning to swim or climb a tree. It continued and amplified my trance over the poems. The pink book, getting worn, was never far away. I had had stories read me constantly, since I could understand, but no one, I think, had read poems aloud to me before. Certainly not like that. Somebody in the family at home happened to remark that Rudyard Kipling had died. I took the news sorrowfully to Miss Willie. “Nonsense,” she said. “He couldn’t die without my hearing it.” She was right. What world was this of hers, where you heard at once that Kipling had died? I turned in themes and poems.

It was still fall the first time she came down to talk to my mother. I knew she was coming, and I was naturally excited. It was an afternoon in November, after school. I sat down with them, minding my manners and not saying anything--listening to grown-ups was my specialty--when I was suddenly asked to leave the room. I understood at once that she meant to talk about me. I think I tried to eavesdrop, but failed. I went out back and talked to old Bill, our handyman. When I returned she was gone and my mother had a complex look on her face. I still don’t know if she was glad of that visit or not. She had probably been completely happy with Miss Jennie.

I later learned that I was to be thought of’ as “talented,” “imaginative,” etc.--all those superlatives Miss Willie had to give, and all the backing her old family name could bring to bear on them. To me, her opinion, right or wrong, simply flowed out from the poetry, ''the bells, bells, bells.” It joined me more than ever to the poems, and along with them, to Miss Willie, and that outer world she came from saying, “literature,” and “darling,” and knowing when writers died.

At a students’ program in the evening before school let out that spring, I was asked to read a story I had written. Miss Willie read it for me, as I was too timid, and the cry of the small-town audience was for “Author, author.” I got up to be applauded, but what I felt about this, and the reason I couldn’t read my story aloud, was by now a solitary thing, which frightened me because it was powerful and could not be shared. It had already separated me from my school friends, and I became for a time an outcast, ostracized and mocked at, my blue tam stolen, my books and homework hidden, the road to school and back a miserable trek among cold mud puddles.

I was reading the pink book alone in the living room one day when my brother, seven years older, came in. He asked what I was doing. I told him just to listen and began to read aloud. He seized the book, tore it from my hands, and began to read the poem in a high voice, leaping around. When I reached for the book he hurled it across the room and danced out, waving his arms in some kind of triumph.

My father was worried about me. In the summer, I kept writing stories. I used to go to secluded places among the woods and bluffs that were part of our property, ride my pony down to the creek, lock notebooks away in my room. One hears of the joyous discovery of new worlds, but to me this is glib. There is no denying that my newfound ways were causing me miseries of loneliness, pangs of feeling “different,” evasiveness, and secret anxieties. I showed things I had written to my mother and sometimes to one of my jollier uncles, but it would be many years before I found any real community, or even knew that such a thing existed.

The Keenans moved away. Perhaps Mr. Keenan sent for them. Their going was not a real surprise, and I don’t remember it as painful. Mimi and Frances had sometimes come down to my house to play. I think I always understood they belonged to the somewhere else they had come from, were among those who looked outward. Yet even those who go away have ties they don’t lose: The day the request came for me to write about some teacher-"some particular teacher who got you impressed with literature and writing” -I received a letter from California from someone I’d never heard of. Who was “Kay Keenan”? It was Miss Willie. This letter was the first I remember getting, though she’d left our little town in the early 1930’s, as I recall. Miss Willie, now 89 years old, now known as “Kay.” She enclosed the last letter she had had from my mother, who died in 1974. Evidently they had kept in touch, my mother as fixed in place as Miss Jennie; Miss Willie, the wandering one, outward bound. Sure enough, she was leaving California for Virginia, and hoping I would write.

Teachers that came my way after that were wonders, who will remain with me always: Virginia Peacock, in high school, who like Miss Willie put aside the school texts for welcome detours through “Romeo and Juliet,” “Julius Caesar,” and “The Merchant of Venice,” with dalliance also over Hawthorne and Dickens; J. Moody McDill at Belhaven, who showed us so many horizons and kept me writing at a time I wanted to stop; and Donald Davidson at Vanderbilt, that famous character, who made me see modern literature for the first time. But I still think it was Miss Willie who let it all in on me.

From then on there was a working out--a working outward, toward a world of which she was mysteriously but naturally a part. Back then, I mentioned once to my mother that Miss Willie had said the story of Adam and Eve in the Bible was “just a story.” (She actually said this rather casually, not in the manner of teaching anything or imparting some startling truth.) My mother, however, was terribly alarmed and told my father, who took a grave view of it. “With that kind of talk,” one of them said, “she’s leading those children astray.” I guess she did.

A version of this article appeared in the May 27, 1987 edition of Education Week


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