These are great years for bashing teachers but since mine were pretty uniformly wonderful until I got to college (there were some real dunderheads there) I am unable to join the merry ranks; in fact, I have been thinking more than usually of my very first instructors.
In kindergarten the first sensational fact I learned was taught by a Miss Cuneo, who proposed (for teachers were tigers in those days) to take the whole batch of 5-year-olds to a cheese carnival.
"Does anybody know what a carnival is?" but none of us knew.
"A carnival is a place to have a good time," she said. That was my introduction to formal learning and I have never regretted it all began on so optimistic a note.
We all went to the cheese carnival, which was held in Cordova, Tenn. We each got a cube of rubbery cheese. How glorious that day was.
Not long afterward we had another heroic project:
"I want everybody to bring in a cold cream jar, thoroughly washed out," said Miss Cuneo, who was quite good at cardinal points such as "thoroughly washed." Now in those days when society was less pluralistic than now, all mothers got cold cream in the same kind of white glass jar and in no time at all every kid had one, about four inches across and three inches deep. We trooped out to the schoolyard (which was mercifully good Tennessee clay) and filled our jars with dirt.
"Each one of you is going to get one nasturtium seed," our Aristotle went on, and she told us how to plant it in the jar, and watched to make sure we did it right.
Now the odds are fabulously against the possibility that from one seed apiece, planted in a glass jar without drainage holes, the entire class should produce a mass of nasturtium plants covered with bloom. But I am here to swear that every kid had nasturtiums. Not one failure. The jars all sat in rows in sunny south windows.
The truth is, I now believe, that Miss Cuneo was used to succeeding and used to having tots madly in love with her, and this attitude was so powerful that no nasturtium seed of this world would dare fail to sprout and flourish. Of course God giveth the harvest, as the Good Book says, but He would hardly presume to get in the way of Miss Cuneo's introduction to botany. It was years before any of us learned that you cannot always count on batting a thousand in gardening projects. One seed, one pot of flowers. That's what we were told, that's what we saw with our own eyes, and that's what we expected. Miss Cuneo did not believe in anything less than 100 percent.
Our principal was a terrifying woman of enormous age (which I have since computed to be about 40) who also expected perfection in all things. She was stately, as well as fierce, and when I first encountered the actress Judith Anderson, years later, I assumed she was either a twin or a clone of Miss Wells.
We all learned Christmas carols and sang them at a school program. A pity the Metropolitan Opera does not rehearse as lengthily as we did. Miss Wells' favorite carol was "God Rest Ye Merry," though the idea of merriment and Miss Wells was the original oxymoron from which all others derived.
"Sing tydings of cumfut and joy, cumfut and joy," we piped, every day for months, and every day Miss Wells visited us to see how we were coming along, and every day for months she rapped a desk and stopped us:
"KAHM-FORRRT, children," she would cry. "Not cumfut. KAHM-FORRT. Kahmforrt and joy."
All over the South, to this day, there are men and women who speak fairly normally except for the word comfort, which we call kahmforrt.
Miss Waldran was an earth mother. She taught us to read. Baby Ray has a dog. Subject, transitive verb and object. No blathering nonsense about it. My own writing style, when at its best, is of course based on that impeccable sentence. And another sentence, "The boy hit the ball," is like unto it. Then we advanced to harder sentences, in which the verb does not have an object. Our model for that was "The Lord is my shepherd."
We progressed right along and soon were ready for Miss G. Condon, who was favorably disposed to Indians. Feather headdresses were beyond us, but war suits were not. They were made of shiny brown cloth that cost a nickel a yard. The squaws wore beads, that was the only difference.
Miss Durham was a great believer in flags. Everybody made one of white cotton painted with show-card colors. I did the Union Jack, which is not nearly as simple as you think. There is a lot more white going on in it than you notice at first glance.
Apart from George Washington, whose picture adorned every room of the school, the ornaments ran to travel posters. Miss Ramsey had been to Mont-St. Michel a number of times and had pictures of it all over the place. We understood it was the main thing to see in the world.
All our teachers were geography-mad. I guess they lived for the blessed long summers when they could get away from us. We heard a lot about foreign places. The major cities of the world, I grew up knowing, were Gloucester, Canterbury, Arles, Lucerne, Antofagasta and Shiloh.
The first of these I ever actually went to was Shiloh. Our town's train station is where the wounded came in and our parish church was where they were treated and died. On the battlefield we all picked up Minie' balls, still plentiful then. April is when the peaches bloom and their petals from the nearby orchard floated in the pool once red with blood.
Nor was science neglected. We got hunks of coal and poured stuff over them and they grew furry coats of various colors. One day a kid brought a rabbit. We all got to pat it. Physics, zoology, you name it, we learned it.
I thank God I learned everything worth knowing right there at Bruce School. I only regret I have never seen the mighty city of Antofagasta.