I suspected there was more to Agatha Berlinsky than her coldness and lack of humor. It was 1963, and we didn’t get along. She was a long-term substitute teaching our eighth grade English class. From my perspective as a 13-year old she appeared to me to be in her forties though she was probably in her mid-twenties. Her face was drawn and she wore her blond hair in a tight bun.
Among my friends, I called her by her first name, probably as a way to make her appear more human. Outwardly, however, it was my way of showing disrespect, in line with my persona which had emerged that year in stark contrast to the quiet kid I had been in previous grades. By virtue of hormonal changes that came with my entry into eighth grade, I realized a goal of being funny—often achieved by being disruptive.
Agatha was a source of wonder for me. My curiosity intensified when she had a girl in our class, Eileen, read us the short story ‘Land’ by Sinclair Lewis.
Eileen effected a superior attitude that probably accounted for her not having too many friends. That day, she stood in front of the class and, like Agatha, waited for silence. She frowned at those still talking. When we were all quiet, she began reading. She read slowly, in a tone that was both neutral and engaging. It took up the entire period for Eileen to read it.
The story was about the life of a young man who wanted to own land and farm it. His father stood in the way of that dream and the hero ended up becoming a dentist. He continued in that profession long after his father died, unhappy with his life, and questioning what his life would have been like had he done what he wanted.
The next day, Agatha asked for our thoughts on the story. I asked ‘Why did you pick that particular story to have read to us?’
Her answer was delivered in her usual efficient and icy manner. ‘Your question is not pertinent. I want your thoughts on the story, nothing else. Is that clear?’ I said yes and hoped she would move on to someone else, but she was focused on me.
‘I’m waiting,’ she said.
‘I thought it was sad.’
‘He couldn’t do what he wanted to do,’ I said.
‘Many people can’t do what they want to do. Why do you find that sad?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘It has not escaped my notice that you’re fairly talkative; I’m sure you can come up with something more than that,’ she said.
‘I felt sorry for him.’ She said nothing in response which I took to mean that my answer was somewhat satisfactory.
I called Eileen that evening. I phoned her often; she was the first girl from school I had ever talked to on the phone. Her friends were few and to my knowledge I was the only boy who was friends with her. We had known each other since fourth grade but I became friends with her in eighth grade mostly for the purpose of gaining advice on how to win the affection of her best friend Andrea, who I had a crush on. By the second semester of that year, I ended up having a crush on Eileen.
That evening I asked her about her reading of ‘Land’. More precisely, I asked her about Agatha.
‘Why did Agatha have you read that story?’
‘I don’t know. Maybe she wanted us to think about what we wanted to do in life.’
‘Maybe, yeah,’ I said.
‘It’s a pretty good story.’
‘But why did she pick you?’ I asked.
‘I don’t know. Why?’
‘Just curious,’ I said. ‘When did she ask you?’
‘Last week in Home Ec. She came into the class and asked if she could talk with me. She asked me if I would do it.’
‘Was she different when she talked to you in private than the way she is in class?’ I asked.
‘Oh, I don’t know. Of course she’s going to be different in private.’
‘Well how was she different?’
‘You know, you talk more about Miss Berlinsky than you do about Andrea. You haven’t asked me about Andrea for a while. Andrea told me you hardly call her or talk to her anymore.’
‘I think about her.’
‘You don’t like her anymore do you?’
‘I like her. Why? Did she say something about me?’
‘No. But she was crying the other day. She found out Edward and others said some pretty nasty things about her looks.’
‘What does that have to do with me?’ I asked.
‘I think maybe you heard what they said, and now you’re no longer interested in her.’
‘That isn’t true.’
‘My older sisters think that that’s what happened.’
‘Is that what you think?’
‘Yes,’ she said.
Our conversation ended as did most of ours with one of us saying ‘I have to go.’ This time I said it. In fact, she was correct, but I didn’t want to admit it, neither to her nor to myself. I was at a disadvantage in arguing with Eileen since she had the counsel of her sisters. She had three sisters—one younger, and two older. She would tell her sisters of my antics at school apparently. I had no such help. My brother was now away at college, and my sister had married the year before, leaving me to navigate an eighth grade romance alone.
I suspected that Eileen knew I had a crush on her—or her sisters did and they told Eileen. I took a no-risk approach to the whole thing. My thinking was that if she knew and was still talking to me, then she probably had a crush on me as well.
‘My older sisters think you’re really wild and cool,’ she had told me in one of our phone conversations. ‘You remind them of Holden Caulfield.’ I had asked her who that was. ‘Oh, you have to read ‘Catcher in the Rye’,’ she told me. On a number of occasions she asked me if I had read the book yet.
A number of kids in our class were reading it surreptitiously as was done back then. I wouldn’t get around to reading it until a year later. Although I was not Holden’s age, nor did I drop out of a private school and call everyone and anyone a phony, I imagine the popular interpretation of Salinger’s Holden Caulfield (particularly among teenagers) has been of a rebellious disruptive young man—which I was.
Prior to Agatha’s arrival, I honed my persona into a laugh and attention getter in English class which was then taught by Mrs. Brennan who for the preceding twenty years had taught only fourth grade. In what seemed to me to be an epic lapse of judgment, the principal had switched her from fourth grade to eighth grade English that year. She left abruptly in early February.
It was a year of transition for me. The next year I would be in high school, and this year I was transitioning to one of the cool kids—kids who had long ignored me. The cool clique was headed up by a red-headed good looking boy named Edward who had four or five close friends. I would sit with them during lunch-time in which we discussed the events of the day while others not in the clique looked on and listened as if it were an honor to observe the interplay among royalty.
With the arrival of Agatha, English class became a place where antics necessarily took a back seat. Ours was a class that sorely needed that discipline. Having heard another teacher refer to her by Agatha, I took to calling her by her first name among my friends. Outwardly, it was my way of showing disrespect, in line with my persona. Inwardly it made her more seem more human.
I’ve come to believe that she may have had dreams of being a writer as some English teachers do. ‘Land’ may have resonated with her because she felt locked in to doing something she didn’t want to do—namely teaching, and substitute teaching at that.
I managed to get an after school detention from Agatha. She had given us ten minutes to read an essay, followed by a quiz. I read only the first page before I lost interest. What stuck with me was the concept that the days of ‘lone inventors’ like Thomas Edison had become a thing of the past, and that innovations now occur mostly anonymously in big companies.
I didn’t know the answers to most of the questions on the quiz. On one of them, I decided to just write a nonsensical answer using what I thought were academic cadences. I don’t recall my exact words, but they were on the order of ‘It is a sad and tragic situation that the lone inventor must struggle against prevalent imbalances in our society and is no longer the etymological phenomenon he once was.’ And so on
After she returned our quizzes the next day, I noticed that I didn’t have mine, and Agatha was holding it. She called my name and said ‘I found your answer to question two rather interesting, and I don’t mean that as any kind of compliment.’ She then proceeded to read my answer aloud to the laughter of the class. I enjoyed being the center of attention.
‘Why would you write something like this?’
‘Because I didn’t know the answer to the question.’
‘So you wrote this nonsense instead?’
‘I knew that I was going to get it marked wrong so I figured it really didn’t matter what I wrote,’ I said.
‘And why didn’t you know the answer?’ she asked. ‘You didn’t know the answers to most of the questions.’
‘I didn’t read the essay.’
‘May I ask why not?’
‘I don’t know,’ I said.
‘I’d like a better answer.’
I was silent for a moment.
‘I thought it was boring,’ I finally said.
‘Whether you find this class boring or not, I suggest that you take this class seriously. I’m giving you a detention.’
This occurred in the early weeks of May, when students typically are tiring of school and each other. It was also a time when eighth graders who qualified for admission to an elite high school were notified. We all knew who was accepted and who was not. Eileen and Andrea had been accepted, as had Edward. I was not, and would be attending the regular high school in my neighborhood along with others who didn’t get in. While the neighborhood school was good by all measures, it didn’t carry the same status as the other.
The next day at lunchtime I sat at the table with Edward and his coterie of cool kids. I had noticed a distinct cooling towards me in the last several days, ever since they had received their good news of high school acceptance.
‘What did you think of Agatha giving me a detention?’ I asked. There was silence for a moment until Edward answered in the form of a question.
‘Why do you call Miss Berlinsky Agatha?’ he asked. ‘No one else calls her that. You think it makes you cool, but it doesn’t.’ He was now alive with a sudden and compelling anger. He proceeded to denounce me, telling me that everyone was sick of my stupid jokes. ‘Maybe you were funny at first, but you’re not anymore.’
There was no stopping him.
‘And who said it was OK to sit with us?’
‘Who said I needed permission?’ I said.
‘Don’t bother talking to us and sitting at this table.’
I knew that no amount of logic would prevail. The remainder of lunch time was shrouded in a tense silence. I was now officially shunned and I suddenly saw myself in their eyes—a wise guy, smart ass, and someone who didn’t get in to the elite high school.
‘They won’t stay mad at you,’ Eileen told me later in our evening phone call. I was in my parents’ bedroom. It was one of the two rooms in which there was a phone and it offered the greatest privacy.
‘They seemed pretty serious,’ I said.
‘They’ll forget about it,’ she said. ‘Well, no, they won’t forget it. But they’ll ease up. My sisters say that it doesn’t last long, and they’re the only ones doing it. So just stay with the kids who are your friends. And anyway, school is over in a month.’
We were both silent for a moment. I couldn’t think of anything to say.
‘My older sisters thought what you wrote on that quiz was pretty cool, by the way,’ she said.
‘What did you think of it?’
‘I thought it was pretty funny.’
‘Yeah, well I think Agatha thought it was funny too,’ I said.
‘She was angry, though. She wanted to embarrass you.’
‘If that’s all she wanted she didn’t have to give me a detention.’
‘You really should have read the assignment.’
‘Is that what your sisters are saying?’
‘No,’ she said. ‘It’s what I’m saying. I mean she’s not that bad a teacher.’
‘Next thing you know you’ll say Edward isn’t so bad.’
‘No, I won’t say that,’ she said. ‘I don’t like him. But I would lay off the jokes. Everybody is thinking about high school, now.’ She paused, probably for dramatic effect. ‘Maybe you should too.’
‘Yeah, maybe,’ I said and didn’t want to talk anymore. ‘I have to go.’
As I sat on my parents’ bed I thought about the high school I didn’t get into, and what life would be like next year. I felt sad, but not sad enough to cry. Mostly I felt a quiet and elusive maturity that sometimes came when I was alone.
In the next week Edward and his coterie eased up, although my relationship with them was clearly different than before. They were cordial but not overly friendly. I limited my interactions to those I mostly got along with. I made it a point to not speak to Edward or the others in his group unless spoken to. I also halted my joking.
An unexpected turning point came for me in the form of a series of writing assignments that Agatha gave us in the final weeks of school. Agatha had turned to elements of fiction and writing and on the first day of this new topic talked about conflict within a story and how it represented an overall theme. She then gave an assignment which in its entirety was as follows:
‘I want you to write a story, no more than one page,’ she began. ‘The story should have a character, and there must be a conflict going on with this character, and the conflict must be resolved.’ I hadn’t listened to her entire discussion about conflict, but felt I knew enough to write a story.
My story was about a boy who goes skydiving. During his free-fall he thinks about many things going on in his life and at the last minute decides not to pull the rip-cord. In today’s world, such a story would end up with my being referred to counseling, not to mention the teacher having to file a report with Child Protective Services. While I wouldn’t have minded going to counseling, what actually happened was just as beneficial: when the graded stories were returned I saw an ‘A’ at the top and the note ‘Very well done!’
My parents who had been concerned about my slipping grades were equally pleased, though that night I could hear drifts of conversation having to do with me, coming from downstairs when I was in bed. It was mostly about how I should have gotten into the elite high school.
‘He’s lazy, he fools around,’ my mother said. ‘He has high test scores, but his grades weren’t good enough. You might want to talk to him about working hard next year.’
‘When I talk to him about anything, he clams up.’
The conversation became softer and when I no longer could hear what they were saying I fell asleep.
The assignments continued, as did my stories. In writing my stories, about a boy in various levels of confusion or peril, I felt the quiet maturity that eluded me in my day-to-day life. The A’s followed, always with a written note of encouragement. This became the primary communication between us; she made no indications otherwise of being please with what I was doing.
In the last days of school, who we hung out with was defined by which high school we were going to. I never said goodbye to Edward and his gang, nor to Agatha. I called Eileen a few times the next year, but it became evident to both of us that we had moved on.
I worked hard in high school, getting mostly A’s, motivated at first with an ‘I’ll show them!’ attitude, with ‘them’ being those who got into the prestigious high school. That motivation wore off after the first year and eighth grade eventually became a memory of a transition.
I think about Agatha occasionally. There is no trace of her on the internet. I haven’t seen any evidence that she published anything if she indeed became a writer, unless she wrote under a pen name.
I doubt she would remember me if we happened to meet; she would likely be in her eighties. Sometimes I imagine her as the cold and removed person who taught our class, now old and embittered like the character in the story ‘Land’. Other times, I see her as having shed the veneer revealing a warmth she was afraid to show. If in fact she is still alive and happens to read this story, it will have to suffice to let her know I’m grateful for the kindness she showed me in her own loving but guarded fashion as we both made our ways in our respective worlds.
Barry Garelick has written non-fiction pieces that have been published in Atlantic, and Education Next. His fiction has appeared in Adelaide Literary Magazine, Paragraph Magazine and Fiction on the Web. He won a Hopwood award at University of Michigan in 1971 in the short story category. He lives in Morro Bay, California with his wife.