The Unraveling of Mr. White


When eighth grade came around, we were relieved at first to find that our new English teacher was more interested in grammar drills than in having us read or write masterpieces. He followed the textbook methodically: no odd seating arrangements, no sarcastic comments on papers, no confusing assignments. We learned on the very first day of class that his hero was Erwin Rommel, “The Desert Fox.” Who this was I had no idea, but Mr. White saw Rommel’s life and actions as a model for us all: his strategies, his cunning, his character. For instance, Rommel never took the easy way out, the way we had with our lazy vocabulary sentences (“Verbiose: The man was verbiose.”) Instead of playing kickball during recess, Rommel had by age fourteen constructed and flown his own glider. Instead of hanging around and watching TV on weekends, Rommel was hatching a plot to kill Hitler. Instead of complaining about his family and how they never let him do anything, Rommel ate a cyanide pill so that Hitler would let his family live. This was pretty hard to live up to, as suburban eighth grade offered up few moral dilemmas worthy of taking cyanide pills for the team.

There must have been signs that all was not well with Mr. White, but perhaps they were moments a twelve-year-old girl would miss: an untucked shirt, a hand held up to his temple a few seconds too long during our silent reading, an error in a grade calculation. One day, in the middle of a list of spelling words, Mr. White stopped what he was saying, took off his glasses, and looked out at the class as if we were in a stadium and his real audience sat somewhere in the distance: “Kids, when you get married or fall in love, things seem wonderful, and then you find out it’s not what you expected. Do you know the torch song ‘Is That all There is?’ You’ll be dancing with a beautiful woman and then someday realize that it was all a fantasy . . .”

He went on, describing in detail how his marriage had fallen apart, how they had married too young and that she had changed, become more critical over the years, telling us how Rommel, too had sought companionship outside his marriage. Mr. White said that it was time someone told us the truth: that you could love someone and still be in love with someone else, and that this didn’t make you a bad person. We might not understand it now, but we would. It was so awkward we didn’t even laugh, and we laughed at everything: how his chair made a fart noise, how he pronounced the word “pianist.” This was just too much. I just wanted out of that room, or at least to retreat from Mr. White’s and Rommel’s depressing grownup problems in the welcome relief of our grammar workbook.

That night, my mother called her friend, Ginny, to report that she had found a spot for me at St. Patrick’s, smack in the projects of Lowell. She was sending me to the nuns.

from “The Lowell that Came Later,” She Lived, and the Other Girls Died

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s