by Geoffrey Heptonstall
How could I forget the year we were taught by Miss Amy Carmichael? I ask myself this because I heard news of her yesterday. How could I not remember her? But the reply comes back, why would I want to remember Miss Carmichael?
One afternoon there was commotion outside the class when someone went crazy and began shouting threats to the world. We all recognized the voice of Heywood Bennett, the dentist’s son who, it was said, took cocaine from his father’s surgery.
It was not long before the noise faded as Heywood was taken away. We cheered until Miss Carmichael restored order.
‘Well, if we may continue with your education,’ Miss Carmichael announced, ‘I shall attempt to answer Lauren’s question. If you would like to repeat it, Lauren, because I’m sure that by now we all have forgotten what you asked. It was to do with Shakespeare, I think. You see, I did hear you, although there were some distractions both outside and within the room itself.’ She paused to look about her as if trying to locate the source of her cold irritation. ‘Yes, Nathan, I also mean you and your partner in crime, Miss Angelica Levine.’ There was a murmur going round the room. Nathan blushed and Miss Carmichael smiled in victory. ‘I’m sorry, Lauren, please go on.’
It was Lauren I remember most of all. Long, straight hair a dark red that appealed to me, although I told myself that nothing about Lauren appealed to me.
Miss Carmichael was talking about Shakespeare, although the book we had on our desks was Moby Dick.
‘Well, I don’t rem…’ Lauren stumbled.
‘Lauren, I believe you asked a question,’ Miss Carmichael began again, knowing perfectly that Lauren had asked a question. There was no need for Miss Carmichael to state her belief. It was a fact that Lauren had asked a question. But Miss Carmichael liked to decorate her sentences with elegant formalities, thinking they lent dignity. ‘It was,’ she added, ‘a very interesting question.’ Now, that was stated as a fact, but it was Miss Carmichael’s belief.
‘Lauren,’ Miss Carmichael continued, ‘Lauren asked if Shakespeare was the author of the plays that bear his name. Now, I find that a truly interesting question. So what do you think?’
She looked at the class with an expression that urgently sought to instill interest. It was a rare time I saw Miss Carmichael vulnerable. In my young wisdom I observed with sadness and glee the desperation that shadowed the life of a teacher of a class like ours. Her life was surely a constant disappointment. What did we think? We did not think anything of questions about the authorship of Shakespeare.
The breeze blew outside, causing the trees to stir. Looking out at the grey sky, we who had lived in this place all our lives recognized the signs of an approaching storm. The weather was more interesting than Miss Carmichael’s question. We were thinking also of Heywood Bennett on his way to hospital where we thought he belonged.
‘I don’t believe he did.’ Lauren replied. ‘Because, like, there was this one guy and he wrote so much. And, I mean, really?’
Oh no. But oh yes, this was an opportunity for Miss Carmichael to stand at the lectern and instruct the thousands, if not millions, of her assembled devotees attending on her every word.
‘Well’ she began, ‘we are confronted with the nature of genius. Shakespeare was one of those rare human beings who can do so much, who can live several lives. Like Leonardo. It is genius. That’s all we can say really.’
But it was not all Miss Carmichael had to say on the subject. No, once she had started she found there was always more to say. And then more after that. ‘You know, class, if life has taught me one thing it’s that there are men and women of genius. They are rare. They walk among us, but we barely notice them. They do not look any different from the rest of us. They do not speak any differently from you and me. But we may see the difference if we look carefully because inside their heads are the differences, the unfathomable, perplexing, marvelous differences that great minds can make in their contribution to the world.’
She paused as if for applause. There was a bored silence, which Miss Carmichael mistook for appreciation, before Lauren spoke. ‘To be or not to be. Like, is that genius or just words?’
‘That is for you to decide, Lauren,’ Miss Carmichael replied in terms of admonition that she would swear was praise.
‘Isn’t it for you to tell me, Miss Carmichael?’ Lauren replied more boldly than anybody else would have dared.
‘OK. It is genius,’ Miss Carmichael said in a voice that was holding back its irritation.
Lauren persisted, dangerously so, I thought. We all thought the same. You could hear the mind of the whole class begging Lauren to be careful. ‘I mean, why?’ Lauren asked
‘That’s for you to discover, Lauren,’ Miss Carmichael repeated.
‘It’s asking an awful lot of me. I mean, have you ever actually met a genius, Miss Carmichael?’
‘Well, here I am,’ Ed Garman interjected.
Lauren had a response ready for that. She did not like Ed Garman. Nobody liked him, not even Ed Garman. ’Miss Carmichael, should animals be allowed in this room?’ Lauren asked facetiously. She was furious that Ed had ruined her moment of challenge. It was to be heroic time, and, jerk that he surely was, had undermined it.
‘So I guess there’s really no room for you, Lauren,’ Ed replied. Nobody laughed. It was not funny. Nothing Ed Garman said was funny even when it was funny, or would have been funny coming out of a less stupid mouth.
Miss Carmichael took control of the situation again. The tension having eased thanks to Ed Garman’s untimely intervention, the teacher could command the class once more. ‘To answer your question, Lauren, no, I have not met anyone I could call a genius. At least, I don’t think so. But I know that if ever I do I hope I shall recognize the genius, or potential genius, within that person. I expect it will happen someday. Maybe tomorrow. Who knows? Or maybe it was yesterday?’
‘I don’t believe in genius,’ Lauren murmured.
‘Lauren, my dear girl, you don’t have to see what you don’t want to see. You don’t have to believe anything you don’t feel is right. And you don’t have to do anything to please me except to be yourself.’ Miss Carmichael’s final flourish was her moment of generosity and wisdom worthy of Benjamin Franklin [had it been expressed sincerely]. Nothing Miss Carmichael said was generous or wise even when it was so.
Lauren looked like she had nothing further to say. She knew she was beaten. And I felt so sorry for her, truly sorry because her attempt to pin Miss Carmichael down had gone so screwy.
‘I really,’ Lauren began uncertainly, ‘Like, I really don’t have anything more to say Miss Carmichael.’
It began to rain. I heard the distant sound of the water moving across the whole earth. And we were like creatures of the deep. We went down in the darkness not from choice, not from sense but from an instinct, creatures of the deep that we are.
Miss Carmichael smiled. It was similar to the smile on her face when a younger kid came in one day with a message for ‘Miss Cramickle.’ The class tried not to laugh. Miss Carmichael smiled her cold smile of superiority that told the world it was stupider than she.
‘Class, OK now. I’d like you to pay attention. Let me read you something. And I want you all to pay attention, including you, Nancy. I said, including you, Nancy. Thank you. When you’re all quite ready, Arnold, I want you to hear something written by Herman Melville. Now, you all know he wrote Moby Dick. Right? But this is not from Moby Dick. This passage will be a preparation for our study of that masterpiece of our literature. And if you never get round to really understanding this great narrative of the sea , well, at least you will carry through your lives something of the genius, and yes, I say genius, of Herman Melville.’
Miss Carmichael cleared her throat before she began reading from an essay of Melville’s on the South Seas. ‘In many places the coast is rock-bound….Those parts of the strand free from the marks of fire stretch away in wide level beaches of multitudinous dead shells, with here and there, decayed bits of sugar cane, bamboo and coconuts, washed upon this other and darker world from the charming palm isles to the westward and southward, all the way from Paradise and Tartarus.’
She stopped for a moment of deeper thought that it was her intention to stir in us. Some hope. ‘Isn’t that beautiful,’ Miss Carmichael asked. ‘An evocation of a distant shore, of somewhere wild, unknown? Doesn’t it stir in you a desire to go out there and find that freedom for yourself?
Nobody said a word. This was a class of silences that said so much. We believed Miss Carmichael never heard what we were saying in our silence.
‘No, maybe not. OK, you can go now.’
When everybody was out of the room Miss Carmichael spoke to rows of empty desks that did not move and did not speak. I was tying my shoelace in the corridor outside, so I had lingered, and now could hear every word Miss Carmichael was saying. ‘Nobody is ever listening to a word anybody says. Certainly nobody ever listens to me. So that you could say my life is a failure. That would be true. But everybody else’s life is a failure, too. So I’m in good company. I am in that respect unexceptional. In most other respects, however, I am exceptional.
‘So, my dear students, you are so very lucky to be taught by me. And, although you are not listening and have no intentions of ever listening, you can say in later life that you were taught by somebody whose words you never appreciated yet now you know them to be wise. Except that you can’t remember for the life of you what those words were. And with that pleasant thought, class dismissed for the summer. Somebody else will be instructing you in the wisdom of the world, for in the fall I shall be long gone from here and from the sight of so many uninterested and uninteresting faces. Thank you. Thank you so much. Your indifference means so much to me.’
Miss Carmichael walked towards the open door. She looked embarrassed when she caught sight of me, for she knew I had heard clearly everything she had said. It was not so much the content that embarrassed her as the fact that she had been overheard talking to nobody.
That nobody was me. She had been talking to me.
‘Miss Carmichael,’ I said.
Miss Carmichael stood at the open door of her room. To counter her embarrassment, and to shame me, she began to speak softly, as if to herself, although it was not to anybody except me. I was intended to learn and to remember that Miss Carmichael was not the bloodless machine we took her to be. She had feelings within her that she could rarely, if ever, express to a class of teenagers who considered her a diversion in the routine of their high school days.
‘The young. Hmmm,’ she began. ‘Yes, the young. You. That girl – Lauren. So many young people. So many.’ What was she saying? What did she mean? ‘The young. And we are the old. Not so old but old. Mad and wise, but old. Melville will explain it all. I can’t tell you how important that book is, and not just to me. It is written for future generations. It’s written for the whole world. For everyone. The whole goddam beautiful world. Such a beautiful, beautiful world.’
That left me with the choice to turn away in contempt or to admit my own embarrassment. I recalled Lauren with her swish of dark red hair, feeling so animated when she challenged the knowledgeable and superior Miss Carmichael. Lauren had come alive. I had not seen her so spirited before. The veneer of cynical indifference had fallen away in her desire to speak her mind and not the words that others had written for her. As she spoke her body gave out such energy that I thought she might rise out of her chair and fly. I knew it was the way Lauren felt too.
Therefore I could never forgive Miss Carmichael her crushing of Lauren’s eager, young spirit. I cannot forgive her now as I write this recollection of an afternoon one early summer the year we were being taught by Miss Carmichael.
That Lauren seemed to recover is incidental. Nobody ever recovers from anything, do they? You think they do. Well, think again. Think of Lauren going home, unusually subdued. Think of Lauren at home that evening, tense quarrelsome or anxious. Think of Lauren forever avoiding Moby Dick, for ever going silent when the word genius was mentioned at any place and at any time.
The young. Hmmm. The young. What did Miss Carmichael know about being young?
‘I don’t believe I’m an angel,’ Miss Carmichael said before I turned away. I felt neither contempt nor shame, just confusion. ‘No, I’m not an angelic being. But neither are you.’
‘What does that mean?’ I asked, turning back as I was intended to turn.
‘It means that we are both human. You may think you know that already. But it takes a long time before we understand inside ourselves what it means to be human.’
This confirmed for me what I had suspected for a long time. I saw how crazy Miss Carmichael was. At the age I was then crazy old people elicited no sympathy from me. Today I see that she was lonely, sad and desperate. All that was distilled into one word. Crazy.
She had more to say of course. It was more rambling to nobody in particular. ‘There are those who deny what is natural. They think themselves above nature. Oh, they have done with all that. They have made their own world. Their creation is greater than anything in nature.’
What was she saying? I could not understand her reason for saying this strange thing. Why speak to me like this? ‘I want you to understand. You above everyone must understand. We have to recognize we are part of nature. We are not fully alive if we fail to acknowledge this. It’s not an opinion, by the way. It’s a universal truth. How do you explain life without an acceptance of the truth that we are part of nature?’
‘Miss Carmichael…’ I began. She was not listening.
‘Sometimes,’ she began, ‘you know, sometimes I feel that if we look back we can see the city on the horizon. You know that? If we looked out west we could see the city. I know it’s impossible, but you look east you can see the Mayflower. That was only a moment ago. Look closely and you can see the history of the world. You can the formation of the continents, the evolution of life, the first word of Creation.’
‘Miss Carmichael, I really have to go now.’
‘Stay and feel the rhythm of the world as it turns,’ she replied. ‘You think I’m crazy? I know you do, and maybe you’re right, but I’m crazy about the things that matter. That is difficult for you to understand, I think.’
‘No, I think I do,’ I said, trying hard to understand.
‘I think not,’ Miss Carmichael retorted, always determined to have the last word. It did not have to be the right word, but it had to be the final, determining pronouncement that would settle everything to her satisfaction, and silence all further objections to her point of view. That was how she had lived her life.
‘You know what, Miss Carmichael,’ I emboldened myself to say out loud, ‘you have no goddam right to tell anybody, including all of us, what we know, think or understand. Because our minds are ours, not yours. And you ought to respect that.’
There was an inevitable silence. Finally she spoke in reply. ‘I shall pretend I did not hear that.’
‘That’s your choice, Miss Carmichael. It’s the choice you’ve always made.’
‘I’m going to report this. Curse words, insolence and a threatening manner. You are going to be in serious trouble, young man. Let me assure you of that. And before you say
anything further, my word will count for much, much more than yours. May I remind you who I am?’
‘You are Crazy Miss Cramickle,’ I reminded her, and walked away. It was the last day of school for the summer. It was the last time we were taught by Miss Carmichael. She was to become a distant figure for what remained of our high school years.
I spent the summer mostly with Lauren. We never spoke of school much the whole summer. School was out of our minds until September came back like the returning tide on a cold dawn. There was no report, no disciplinary hearing, nothing. Crazy Miss Cramickle kept the conversation to herself. So I was never able to tell the world about her ramblings to an empty room until now.
And now the room of hers is empty for always. Even the echoes and shadows of her presence have faded. Who remembers her but children grown up and long gone from her influence? I can almost hear her voice in the empty room: ‘Sometimes I feel that if we look back, you know….’
About the Author:
Author of novel, Heaven’s Invention. Several plays performed and/or published. Recent contributions to Bandit Fiction, Fiction Week, the London Magazine, Montreal Review, Poetry Pacific, Scarlet Leaf Review, Sentinel Literary Quarterly.