our heroine is distressed to find she’s run out of Scotch tape,
just when she needs it most.
If this sounds like a primitive, pre-computerized version of word-processing, it is, and surely some day my English teacher, Anna Morini, will get credit and some much-deserved remuneration for her farsighted innovations. Please note that the application of the fundamental principles of the Morini Method to the new technology can be effective: I underwent just such an exercise the other day, in revising an article for Opera News.
Having already won prizes for my writing — and not just the creative stuff, but the “ready writing,” wherein I was given a topic and 30 minutes in which to construct a balanced, five-paragraph essay, or an inverted pyramid of journalistic clarity — I resisted Mrs. Morini at first. Why should I learn something I didn’t know, when I knew so much already?
Well, youth is rebellious. But she indulged me, a little, and my grade-point average didn’t suffer too much. Lately I’ve come to appreciate not only her efforts but those of several of my high-school teachers. People in real estate always talk about the importance of neighborhoods with “good schools,” and my parents surely settled in one.
Consider Carlene Klein Ginsburg, my French teacher, who gave me the tools with which I make my way in France; and Melinda Smith, a former beauty queen (Miss Wool and Mohair!) who suffered fools not at all, and who taught me the journalism that earns me my living today. Since I went on to obtain pricey Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, it’s somewhat disconcerting to think that, thanks to Carlene and Melinda, I’d already laid the groundwork for my future before I ever left high school. But it’s true.
I was by nature and vocation a teacher’s pet, and both Carlene and Melinda knew how to handle me. There was distinct collegiality in their demeanor, but I had to earn that. When Carlene took a group of students to France, I placed into the advanced class — alongside her and the other teachers. As an editor on the newspaper staff, I had to show leadership, pretty much running the class, some days. However, despite my precocity (and inflated sense of merit), and though we got on easily, in neither woman’s class was there any question who was the boss among “colleagues.” We were not peers, and believe it or not, that suited me fine.
I wish to hell that, in addition to French and journalism, they’d taught me people skills like theirs.
Another fine teacher, Joye Davis, taught English in my junior year, with a focus on American literature. She had an advantage over any other teacher I knew, since she grew up in Mississippi. As kindergartners in Jackson, she and her classmates were taken to visit a certain “Miss Welty,” who read stories to them; as a college student in Oxford, she used to sit near William Faulkner at the drugstore soda fountain, eavesdropping on his conversations. She swore she hadn’t learned much from these encounters — Miss Welty struck her primarily as odd-looking, and Mr. Faulkner tended to talk about the weather — but I learned plenty from her.
For example, she pointed out that Amanda Wingfield, in Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, isn’t nearly what she pretends to be, and the fatal clue is not her rapturous recollection of Gentleman Callers past. For no fine Southern lady of Amanda’s generation would ever discuss “gastric juices” at the dinner table, as she does. The entire play fell open like a blossom in my hand after that.
Mrs. Davis knew when to level with us. We weren’t assigned Shakespeare’s Othello in Texas public schools, she said, because it was about a black man and a white woman. (Was any other teacher so honest with us?) But she also knew when to be tactful. When one classmate took umbrage at the politics behind Miller’s The Crucible, Mrs. Davis graciously ceded the floor and let her present an impassioned defense of Joseph McCarthy. (Something most people reading the play, even in Texas, don’t get the benefit of.)
Zona Ray taught drama class, and it was a good fit for her. Headstrong and beautiful, with a powerfully projected speaking voice, she reminded me some days of the young Bette Davis, and other days of Faye Dunaway. But not until I was a senior did I understand how much theater meant to her.
Ambitiously, she selected Jean Anouilh’s Antigone for our school’s entry in a play competition, and she went at it with a hacksaw to bring it to the mandatory 30-minute running time. Though we’d clashed a couple of times in the past, and I was no longer enrolled in her course, she cast me as Creon, the king. I understood this as the gift she intended it to be, and I took the part gratefully and seriously. I was as proud of my work as of anything I’ve done — but we lost the competition.
Almost immediately, I saw that Zona wasn’t merely disappointed, having worked her ass off for months. She wasn’t merely frustrated by the opaque injustice of the judge’s decision. She was wounded. For she had, with a handful of teenagers and a battered script, tried to create a thing of beauty. It wasn’t flawless, but it was honest and smart, tough and true. It tested her limits, and dared her to soar, which is, after all, what theater is supposed to do.
And then some fool had turned his back on what she believed in — in favor of a Neil Simon comedy.
Nowadays, I see that my high school produces spectacles on the scale of Les Misérables. I wonder how they manage that: we always had to scrape to find enough boys to put on a musical, which is how I got cast in one.* But I’d be very surprised if they ever put on a show as good as that Antigone.
There were other good teachers, too — Anne Bean, who was so tolerant of (and amused by) my attempts to learn algebra; Homer Alexander, who showed a similar attitude toward my attempts to learn physics; Terry Quon, who designed an intensive course in German, cramming three years into one, just for me; and Alicia Ceverha, who gave me my first real lessons in Italian grammar (as well as the Cuban accent I still possess in that language).
In hindsight, I realize that I received a truly first-rate education at my dinky little suburban Texas high school, and when I got to college, I had nothing to fear from kids who went to Andover instead of J.J. Pearce. I was hardly aware at the time how truly lucky I was.
Yet one of my most telling experiences came outside the classroom. Mrs. Morini’s husband had heart trouble, so raking the yard in November was out of the question, though there were heaps of fallen leaves. She asked me and another student, Margaret Guttes, to come over one Saturday morning to help.
It was a cool, clear day, of a kind that Dallas doesn’t often see, a bona-fide autumn day, like something out of a picture book. Margaret and I worked for several hours, and then Mrs. Morini invited us into the kitchen for lunch. She’d made chicken noodle soup — not out of a can — with penne pasta, which struck me as just about the most exotic thing I’d ever seen — until she sprinkled parmesan cheese on it, which struck me as nothing short of otherworldly.
And that was the end of the story, or so it seemed. Only years later did I realize that Mrs. Morini had taken a terrible risk. Who knows what kind of trouble her average punk student might have caused? And remember that my grade-point average did suffer under the Method.** Just giving me her address must have required a leap of faith that I wouldn’t vandalize the house, in a fit of resentment, some other day.
Yeah, I was a teacher’s pet, but Anna Morini gave me something that day more valuable than the Method: her trust.
I say it again: I was luckier than I knew.
*NOTE: Because my last sung line in Something’s Afoot came before the first entrance of one of the other actors, David Arment, he was able to dub my singing lines from backstage. Now there’s a good indication of Zona Ray’s superlative theatrical ingenuity! (And ever since, I‘ve identified closely with Lina Lamont in Singin’ in the Rain.)
**To this day, my mother blames the Morini Method for my failure to gain admission to Yale. Thus perhaps the greater risk to Mrs. Morini was that my parents would turn out to be vandals. However, the celebrated Texas Cheerleader Mom scandal had yet to happen, and we were all more innocent and unsuspecting in those days.