Emerson accused Thoreau of wasting his gifts by leading a “huckleberry picking party” into the woods. I can’t say what gifts Thoreau might have wasted, but I can say that no one ever accused me of wanting to idle my gifts away picking blackberries.
Picking blackberries was the bane of my summer childhoods. My mother would have her huge stainless mixing bowls out on the counter, hand them to us, and point toward the back door. The blackberries were just beyond the split rail fence behind the barn, but I had to dilly-dally through idle chickens and roly-poly puppies to get there – plus pick a few buttercups and black-eyed susans to stick behind my ears.
The sun shone hot and dry early, and the flies buzzed bullish around my eyes. Ants climbed doggedly between my fat bare toes, but their hearts weren’t really set on biting. They were just doing what they thought they had to do, like me. It was as if some mama ant had shoved them thorax-first out the door to climb toes in the hot, dry sand.
Redolent humidity surrounded me and
made my mind wander. I’d look back at
the tall pines and imagine that there were wily Indians there watching the
little white girl pick blackberries. Or
that Laura Ingalls Wilder and Pa really lived in their log cabin somewhere on
my sandy pine hill there at
Then, I’d pretend I was Harriet the
Spy, and interesting things were happening in my neighbors’ houses. But I really had no neighbors I could see,
just Hortons and Harrisons, and we were forbidden to go in those
directions. My mama said the Hortons ran
wild and the
The stumbling buzz of a fat bee would startle me, and from my reverie I’d be stunned to see my fingers cut raw with nettles and blackberry blood puddled in my fingernails. The bowl was less than half full, and my brother and sister had long gone to the house and sprawled on the living room floor watching Gilligan’s Island reruns or Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
By lunch time my mother would come halfway to the barn and call out, “Are you daydreaming again?” She would seem relieved when I’d answer, “Well, I’m comin’. Some bees and ants got me and my fingers are stingin’.” A little sympathy was worth the lot of pain.
Maybe Emerson never participated in the idle glory of berry picking nor entered the realms of imagination the best pickers wander into, but I would be willing to bet Thoreau appreciated the experience. Perhaps.
It’s frightening, no, intimidating, to think of new beginnings when I’m mired and bogged in the past. I had the absolutely most wonderful, perfect class ever this past year. Each of my own five classes had its own unique dynamic, with sense of humor, leaders and followers, private jokes, clowns, beauty princesses, athletes, slow ones, smart ones, Mamas’ Boys and Daddies’ Girls. There were affluent ones, poor ones, dishonest, and honest. Disparate lives, but one unifying commonality: my students.
I almost could have let my Hawthorne to Hemingway canon go – and moved up to the eleventh grade with them. But I had foolishly made the mistake of bragging about them: their alertness, intuitiveness, and their fatal flaw – the high PSAT scores, so another teacher took them for herself.
So, no summer reading of Beowulf and King Lear for me. As the last week neared, they begged, “Mrs. Drossos, come with us. Be our teacher next year.” Amazingly, I would have. This is the group a teacher would take a bullet for. Or, more correctly, for whom a teacher would have taken a bullet. I would have faked admiration for James Joyce for these kids (the equivalent of taking a bullet). But I don’t have to.
I’m really happy doing my American literature thing – Hawthorne to Hemingway. Maybe next year I can do it a new way. Old material, different methods. New kids, not yet beloved.
Mrs. Thompson, 2nd grade, is memorable because she fell over backwards from leaning back in her chair, like she told us never to do, and showed everyone her longline girdle. I liked her not only for this, but also because she had long black hair teased up HIGH like Priscilla Presley’s. After all, it was the 60s.
Mrs. Quick, 7th grade, was remarkable in the most ordinary way. Her room was quiet and cozy, upstairs in an ancient building which had once been a school, but was then condemned. Our real school had burned to the ground one Saturday night during rumors of imminent integration. But I don’t remember anything deplorable in that condemned classroom. Instead, I remember how she had us write stories, poems, and essays. She never said much when I read aloud; she didn’t have to. I knew she was pleased by the expression on her face. There was only the slightest shimmer of a smile, but her eyebrows would go up, just so, as if to say, “Now that’s what I’m talking about.” Ironically, whatever way with words I may have now is because she first encouraged me to write them, without saying a word herself. As a teacher, good eyebrows are a must.