I taught middle school English for one year in 1995. One year is all it took to run me off. I was good at the subject but not at the kids. I enjoyed the kids but not stuffing poetry into the kids. Note confiscation was my area of expertise. Reading the notes during lunch break was my joy. Laughing at the contents of the notes and sharing them with the teacher friend next door–well, I should have been fired.
Because it hadn’t been so long since I’d been the one pushing the pen across the paper to create the masterpiece that got confiscated. Or almost confiscated, I should say.
It’s funny what kids think they are getting away with. Every kid tries it and every kid thinks they’ve escaped notice. I certainly thought so. My sophomore year in high school led me to Spanish II under the tutelage of Josephine Bourgeois. I was immediately confused upon walking into the room, because her name was Bourgeois. She was the Spanish teacher with the French name. But she confirmed we were in the right place and launched straight into a language we remembered none of after a long summer break.
I knew from the first 6 minutes that I was in for a ride with this teacher. I wonder if she knew the same thing with me. We were made for each other. And she was smarter than I was willing to admit.
Mrs. Bourgeois was small enough to fit in my backpack and had a voice like loose gravel. I don’t know if she smoked. I don’t remember smelling it on her, but she sure sounded like the habit. Her eyes told stories and held secrets and I loved walking into that classroom every day. I walked in daily, trailing my chorus buddy, Cathy Thursby. We were a problem. We were a problem in chorus and a bigger problem in Spanish. Mrs. Bourgeois kept those eyes on us far more than we wanted. And though we didn’t get caught for everything we committed, I’m now convinced she just got worn out and let about half of it go.
As with my 3rd grade brush with the Citizenship police, my problem in Spanish was talking. Cathy and I loved to talk. Any topic would do, as we were not picky. But our favorite topic was other students and the teacher herself. She was funny. She said funny things in two languages. We liked responding to those funnies under our breath. In English. Or Pig Latin.
“Miss White!” She would call from the front of the classroom, so loud it would sometimes be followed by a cough. One would think that the frequency with which I got in trouble would take the edge off the fear, but I never got over the panic of hearing my name pop like an expletive. My name was always followed by a punitive statement. The most common of these was a seat move. There were 3 empty desks in that classroom that she used to shift her problem children around.
“Why don’t you grace this seat with su topetazo (that was my butt) and make this your desk from now on…” she would say, pointing to my new location. I always gathered my things with an air of shame and moved away, leaving my cohort behind. Soon into the year, I learned that Mrs. Bourgeois was a tad soft on her enforcement of “from now on.” The next day, I would return to my old desk in front of Cathy and no one would say a word about it. I fancied that she forgot. But as I’m solidly standing in middle age now, I’m certain she forgot nothing. She knew I snuck back to my roots. And she just let me do it, because she was a little bit awesome that way.
When Cathy and I weren’t having terribly conspicuous secret conversations about inappropriate gossip, we were writing those conversations down. Note writing was a religion in high school. We were very religious. One day, Mrs. Bourgeois was on fire about something, telling animated stories about pet squirrels that she raised to adulthood. I was amused enough to put some commentary into a note, along with a rather unflattering picture of this beloved teacher. I was putting the finishing touches on my picture in gloppy ball point ink when I heard that name again.
“MISS WHITE!” Oh, sweet Davy Crockett. Busted. I looked up from my sure downfall. “I think you’re working on something I’d like to see.” Oh goodness me. Oh no.
“No, Senora, I’m not,” I said politely, trying to throw some Spanish in for grace.
“Oh, I think you are,” she said again, smiling with every wrinkle in her face. “I know I want to see it. I think the class might want to see it too.” She paused and addressed the class. “Class? Would you like me to read what Miss White has been working on so diligently?” Well, of course they said yes. Every person in that room was rooting for a bloodbath. I was shaking my head no. This time, my confidence was gone. I was cornered. Miss Thursby couldn’t save me. Mrs. Bourgeois was sharpening her sword. It was over.
“OK, class she doesn’t seem to want to share her work today. So Miss White, you have two options. One is, pass the note and we have a class read-along. The other is, you eat it.”
“Eat it?” I asked. “Like, swallow it?” I asked, stalling.
“That’s the typical result of eating something,” she answered.
I looked at my picture. And my commentary. And back at her. There was only one viable option. I crumpled up the note, inwardly grieving that Miss Thursby would never see such a glorious and artistic display of wit and whimsy, and shoved it into my mouth.
“All the way in,” she said, enjoying the show. I pushed until the sharp corners poked past the roof of my mouth and I gagged, chewing as I went.
I chewed. And I chewed. And I chewed. I was drooling blue Bic like a dog on his deathbed. Mrs. Bourgeois crossed her arms and sighed with the satisfaction of a champion.
There were still 15 minutes left in that period. 15 minutes to eat note. Parts of the note disintegrated and made their way down to my stomach. Parts of it just stayed in my mouth until I could spit into a bathroom trashcan after the bell rang. But the words of that note hung deep in my consciousness for years. 30 years.
I hadn’t thought about it much until my brother called last week to tell me he had been reading the Tallahassee obituaries and Jo Bourgeois had passed this life on January 4. Never mind that my brother reads obituaries from other towns. That’s another post for another day. When he sent me the link, I sat down from what I was doing and read the life story of this woman that had the number of every student that walked through her door. This woman who could wield words like weapons but was as warm as a patch of sunlight on the June grass. This woman who literally made me eat my words. I felt a tinge of sadness. Followed by a surge of happiness. Which ended in my pulling out a piece of notebook paper and writing a quick note in blue ballpoint pen.
“Dear Mrs. Bourgeois,
Thank you. I’m sorry. Rest in peace, mi Maestra.