West Elementary School was my fourth school in five years. Andover, with its brick-fronted shops and colonial homes, perched on a pedestal between Lawrence and Lowell, two cities lined with boarded-up textile mills on the Merrimack. My best friends in Andover had vacation homes on islands on lakes in Maine and New Hampshire; they lived on the edges of golf courses in houses with towers and balconies, spaces with alcoves filled with books and stuffed animals, homes with cold tile on the kitchen floor, not linoleum made to look like tile.
Andover had one junior high, and it was intimidatingly large. The building itself, a modern rectangle branched into corridors and alcoves, was difficult to navigate and when you got lost, as everyone did, no one really cared. My math teacher, Mr. O’Hare, with the Grizzly Adams beard, needed a way to keep us competitive so decided to seat us all, as he put it, “in order of intelligence.” The math whizzes and suck-ups, including a pretty girl named Andrea who wore a different outfit every day of the term, took their prized spots in the front, while I got stuck in the back row next to Ray, a boy with shaggy whitish hair who picked his nose and stared into space. In our Geography class, the teacher had used Ray’s report cover, scrawled with the words “WROLD STUDIES,” as an example of the kind of laziness and incompetence that would not be tolerated at West.
That same term, I had been assigned to a remedial gym class taught by a woman named Darryl with a tight perm and an even tighter IZOD shirt after failing the rope climbing and sit-up categories of the President’s Physical Fitness Test. At West, it was important for our collective score to be boast-worthy, so these measures were necessary. In case you are wondering what goes on in a remedial gym class (which the teachers called “special gym” and the kids referred to as “retard gym”) let me enlighten you: we practiced getting hit by dodge balls. Yes, we were supposed to be practicing avoiding dodge balls, but that was not quite how it worked. If you were going to get hit anyway, which we surely were, it was best to learn how to minimize your chances of losing an eye or of bleeding internally. We did chin ups without lifting our feet off the ground, to practice “technique.” We ran a twenty-minute mile. This seems an important time to add that there were students in this class in wheelchairs, and one mortified track-and-field whiz who had broken a limb and could not take the regular gym class.
The expectations of our teachers were both absurdly low and surprisingly high. The first book our seventh grade English teacher, Miss Farr, who in my memory looks exactly like Dusty Springfield, or maybe more like my white-haired, bathing-suited Dusty doll, assigned was Old Man and the Sea, along with a three-page paper on Hemingway’s use of symbolism. Because my mother saved everything, I still have the paper, an illuminating study of Santiago as a symbol of a hero. She had us memorize and recite a Shakespearean sonnet and a Frost poem, and read The Great Gatsby, The Red Badge of Courage, and Moby Dick, and write papers on all of them. Miss Farr also saw us as artists, urging us to be free with our thoughts and explore our ideas in a weekly journal. Then she handed them back—marked with the occasional smarmy comment (“Oh, really? You think your parents are the worst parents in the world?”) and with every error marked and corrected. My first C in English was in her class. I still played with dolls in seventh grade and I always made my Dusty doll the teacher. Unlike my Barbies, Dusty had a thick waist and big legs, and she carried a tennis racket. My Dusty doll was adept at creating new forms of punishment for the popular girls: standing naked in a corner while everyone watched, writing a long and boring paper that Ms. Dusty would then rip up and ask them to start over, being dragged by the school bus by a rope. It’s for your own good, said Ms. Dusty. Sometimes you need to be punished to do your best. I do not want to think about what this says about the fact that I am now an English professor.