Teacher Stories: A colleague and an aunt
By Joel Merchant
From Time Out of Mind; Letters to My Daughter
Of the three high schools in which I taught, two provided great students, thoughtful colleagues, wonderful memories. The peak of my experience of leaving home in search of a life of my own was teaching at a charming school on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. I’ll say more about that in other letters.
The second one was a Quaker high school in Pennsylvania. Geographically, the location is like the northeast glacial woodlands. The school was a quiet setting, twenty five miles northwest of Philadelphia, in Bucks County, near the town named Washington’s Crossing in honor of troops crossing the Delaware River by night to surprise British forces near the end of the Revolutionary War. The school covered a hundred acres with a river bordering one edge. There were large playing fields for soccer and lacrosse, a central building that housed most of the boarding students, a dining hall, and administrative offices. There were separate classroom buildings, a few outlying smaller residential houses for seniors, which provided a way the school offered special treatment – small group living arrangements for students who’d behaved themselves their first three years at the school, many of whom now cut loose; a paddock with fifteen horses for riding classes; a traditional old Friends Meeting House, moved there during the 1800s, nestled into a grove of trees, at which students gathered for once weekly; a marvelous auditorium, a separate library.
Among the forty or fifty teachers for six hundred students, there was a female art teacher most of us placed in the category of – I’m sorry to look back on this, but I learned that’s the way of younger people – “elderly”. I have more to say about this from the perspective of later becoming an elderly campus presence myself. I found her attractive for her long service, professionalism, wisdom, and stories, which she willingly shared with those appreciative enough to ask.
I was also attracted to this elderly teacher because she reminded me of what I imagine my Aunt Amey – who by then was a distant memory – must have been like as a teacher. When I was young, I didn’t see Amey enough for my liking, even when she lived in Providence. By the time I became aware of her, she’d retired from teaching. It was still a big thing for a young person to refer to an older person on a first name basis – a Quaker tradition.
Amey was my grandfather’s sister, one of eight children born to the Cook family. Five of those eight children died in their 30s or early 40s. A gene for heart disease appears frequently on both sides of my family, and has afflicted me. Of the eight, my grandfather died at 80 his sisters, Amey and Maude, each came to the end of their lives within a half year of their 100th birthday. The first (and only) time he and you were together, we were visiting my parents in Rhode Island for the summer. You were ten months old and took your first steps. He was delighted.
Amey graduated from the same high school I attended. I don’t know how she got between Providence and Woonsocket in those days, or whether she lived with someone in Providence. After high school, she became the only family member to attend college until I came along.
It’s impressive to see how the world changes over a century – like for Amey, between the 1880s and the 1980s. Recently, someone who’d learned my mother’s age asked her what she thought was the most important event in her lifetime (airplanes). After college, Amey spent forty years teaching language and social studies at my high school. By the time I knew her, it seemed to me she was easily conversational about the social history of Rhode Island. She embodied it. She could tell me something about everybody. I think she was able to do this because she listened to people’s stories, with the infectious encouragement I can still hear, urging them to go on. From these stories she constructed courses for students. Through stories, she emphasized similarities between people and how much we share with others. It was Amey who was able to slow me down long enough to imagine: what a awesome experience, that all of us now present appeared on this planet at the same time, and what that means about how we should take care of each other.
When her sister died leaving a young daughter, Amey took over the responsibility of raising her niece. She spent twenty years as a single mother before society even acknowledged that status. She married one time, after she was over sixty and had come to the end of her teaching career. She moved to a small town in western Massachusetts to live with a widower attorney named Irving. They celebrated their twenty fifth anniversary before he died of complications resulting from having all his teeth removed. The last time I saw Amey, striding (she rarely just walked) between the living room and kitchen to fetch Irving a cup of tea. She was mumbling, loud enough that others, including Irving, could hear, “For heaven’s sake,” she seemed to ask the air, “have you ever heard of such a dumb thing, having all your teeth pulled, and at his age. Probably die. Certainly not the way I’d choose.”
After Irving died, Amey left New England to live with the woman she’d cared for after her sister had died. The Hawaiian language has a word for this kind of relationship – “hanai.” Adults share a child, who grows up living with aunts and uncles as well as parents. Amey’s hanai-daughter had married and moved to the Rocky Mountains, north of your university in Boulder. Amey’s daughter and her husband owned and operated a dude ranch. Amey spent five years on the ranch. During that time, her grandson died from a fall off his horse. When Amey reached the age for such a decision, she moved to an elder-care facility. I did not have direct contact, but my family sources tell me she heartily disliked it. After a sufficient amount of time for a ninety three year old woman to become irritated about her living conditions, complaining that everyone at the care home was sick, old, or both – Amey moved back to the ranch.
Amey’s spirit. When she reached her early 90s, Amey visited us in Honolulu. She called to explain, “I just learned I was the last living member of the Pembroke Class of 1911. I think I should give myself a gift. The first one that came to mind was something I always wanted to do and haven’t – travel to Hawaii.” By that time, Amey was as frail a person as I’ve ever seen, near blind, and had shrunk to under five feet tall. But her mind and spirit made her larger than life. She and her daughter spent two weeks traveling around Hawaii, took us to dinner, visited our home on the campus. She loved seeing you. She rocked with you in her lap. She thought out loud about how surprised she was that the two of you spanned more than a century.
Between the time she realized she had contracted what would be her last illness, and the time she died, Amey was said to have complained, “Damn! I always wanted to live to be one hundred.” She died nine months into her hundredth year, three short of reaching her goal. By then, it is likely Amey thought there wasn’t anywhere else to go, that she’d done most of it, and then some. The family arranged to bring her back to New England, where she joined Irving in his family burial ground.
You may wonder, what’s the connection – that an elderly teacher at the Pennsylvania Quaker school reminded me of what I thought my aunt must have been like.
If you probe around a person like that, stories spill out as if the little boy in Holland forgot what he was doing and removed his finger from the hole in the dike. A storm swell, a tidal wave of people, times, events, what people wore, how they acted, what they did behind the scenes. We see them in a way that makes us mindful of how we are alike. It doesn’t matter that we might have lived in a different age – or to a different age – or in a different place, wore clothes that now look unfamiliar, when guys wore their best finery with ruffles, and some wore wigs, not just ties, when they went to court.
Add to that, part of this teacher’s background was her grounding in Quaker practice. She would have heard the stories with the thought “So that’s how you see the world. How interesting!” And meant it, in her heart.
When a Quaker school hires a new faculty member, they make sure the person knows why (s)he’s been chosen. “It is our school’s objective to radicalize our students. We think you would be the right kind of adult presence, and help do that.” Education means transformation. When we think about our lives, we recognize people who helped transform us. When the Quaker school invited me to join the faculty, “I remember thinking: the school has suffered from a case of mistaken identity. They meant to send the letter to someone else.”
I had been at the school for a couple of weeks when one day I wandered into the faculty lounge, and first saw her – the “elderly” female teacher, alone in the room. She was a bright, take-no-crap, I’ve-seen-it-all sixty five year old woman who was surprised she was closer to retirement than the beginning of her career, and did not like the idea of leaving what she loved doing. She crooked her finger at me, pointed at the chair next to her, said she had a story to tell me.
She explained, “I understand you’ve lived and taught in Hawaii. The position which you’ve filled was once occupied, a few years ago now, by a young Quaker man. He later left to go to war. I have hesitation about his decision. He ended up in the South Pacific. He wrote letters about his response to discovering a lush, tropical, sensuous island world. I imagine that, to a person from Pennsylvania, the experience of the Pacific Ocean world was unexpected, visually and emotionally jolting, different from anything else in the world a person could dream to experience in a lifetime.”
The conversation came as a shock. The person I knew right away she referred to was – through his writings – one of the influences in my life’s direction – from New England to the Pacific, Asia and Hawaii. My career already included developing an Asian and Pacific history program for a high school on a Pacific island. Part of the reason this Quaker school hired me was to develop an Asian studies course. This elderly female faculty member went on, almost in a whisper, “I must say I enjoyed following my former colleague’s career after he left here. It is apparent that he thought he enjoyed writing more than being a teacher. I give him credit for his success.” She paused in her story, an experienced faculty member doing the teacher’s thing about checking her audience’s attention. She continued, “But there is one complaint some of the faculty had about James Michener when he taught here. There were some who thought” – she said with a hint of a sneer – “this guy thinks he’s so bright, he doesn’t even bother to organize what he’s going to talk about with his students until he leaves the dining hall and heads off down the long campus path toward the social studies building.”
Enjoy Colorado. Joel