The only problem is a job for me. In sleepy Greenfield, I can’t further my fledgling advertising career, so I apply for the summer teaching certificate program at Smith College. If I get in, I’ll be prepared for a position by September.
I close my eyes our first night in our new space. We’re all unpacked. Our brass bed is set up. Charlotte, our marmalade kitten, is already asleep at my feet. I curl up careful not to bump her hind leg, still in a cast from an unknown mishap in our old neighborhood.
I awake to a yowl coming from under the bed. I leap off the mattress, and, in the dark, instinctively reach my hand underneath. I howl. John turns on the light, and there is Charlotte, her cast caught in the exposed coils of the box spring, twisting her leg in agony to escape. By dawn of our second day in paradise, our kitten has been euthanized, and I’m in the emergency room, my ring finger, horribly bitten, soaking in Betadine to avoid infection.
When I start the program at Smith, the finger is in a splint, resting the inflamed tendon. Thank goodness, it’s my left hand, so I can take notes.
I’m assigned two classes as a student teacher at Northampton’s secondary summer school which meets in the morning at the high school: a high school enrichment course in basic acting and an eighth-grade remedial class focused on grammar.
The acting instructor is a young woman with curly brown hair wearing an Indian print blouse you can sort of see through which succeeds in gaining everyone’s attention.
She weaves among the group and lowers her hands to indicate we must all lie down on the dusty stage. “We’ll begin with breathing and relaxation exercises.”
I’m surrounded by a horizontal herd of adolescents, inhaling their pungent blend of aftershave, perfume, and BO.
I must walk to the other end of the building to my remedial class, the long hallways stale with closed-up summer heat. By the time I get there, a middle-aged Miss So-and-So with short curly hair and dark glasses stands at the ready by her blackboard. All students are in straight rows facing front except two boys in matching jean jackets at a round table in the back.
She hands me three sets of dittos and points. “You’ll be helping Danny and Mike with parts of speech.”
I resist the urge to salute and report to my station. For an hour and a half Sergeant So-and-So drones on while I cajole the obvious bad boys with the joys of conjunctions and adverbs.
The seminar portion of my program meets in the afternoon on the Smith campus. We convene, ten of us, around a blonde oval table, in a modern building overlooking Paradise Pond. Our professor, a man with a gray comb over, presides with his back to the idyllic boathouse. For two hours, we discuss lofty principals of pedagogy from our reading while my sweaty legs stick to the curved birch seats.
The girl who sits opposite me invites me to go swimming after class. We park my unairconditioned Vega at a pond in Whately and lunge for the water still in our clothes. A few hours of splashing, lying in the sun, and laughing at her imitation of Professor Pompous, and I have a sunburn line at the edge of my cutoffs.
As the program progresses, Sergeant So-and-So relinquishes the front of the room, and takes my place at the bad boy table. It’s my turn to plan and execute a lesson. Personally, I can’t bear another second on parts of speech, and choose to read aloud from Cinderella, the original version, a selection from the German folk tales recorded by the Brothers Grimm. The tale, quite grisly, includes the step sisters chopping off their heels to fit into the slipper that guarantees a shot at The Prince. Looking up at my audience, even Danny and Mike are paying attention. Afterwards, there’s lively discussion, and begging for a gruesome encore. I wish I could say I included an intro to the basic elements of a story: character, setting, and a plot diagram of exposition, rising action, climax, and denouement. Or perhaps background info on the Brothers Grimm, but no. I’m motivated solely by enthusiasm for a book I recently bought for twenty-five cents as a library discard and the hunch that middle schoolers would love romance and gore.
In acting class, I don’t have to present a lesson. I’m more an assistant improv director, or the resident straight man who must stay in character, even after the most ridiculous line or action.
And so, without distinction, I complete my training and land a permanent sub position as an eighth-grade language arts teacher at a regional school north of Greenfield.
I always thought kids who lived in the country were better behaved than kids from the city, but apparently, there are bad boys even in the woods of Warwick. They sit together in the back row until I make a seating plan. Still they laugh, taunt other students, and fail to pay appropriate attention. Appropriate being the key word. I know my lesson plans are loosey-goosey, and the Department Chair’s office is inside my room behind a folding screen. I’m sure she hears all the nonsense I can’t control, including my own shouting. She is kind, however, and on my first observation form, notes that I am making mistakes common to a novice, and need to watch my tone.
While John is soaring in his chosen field, I’m seriously doubting my decision to be an educator. I’ve tried to reform my penmanship, so students can understand what I write on the board, but now l hardly recognize my own handwriting. I put on suits to appear more adult, but I feel like I’m playing dress-up. I’m at least ten years older than my students, but the Boys from Warwick are a head taller than I am.
It should be no big deal, but the thing that bugs me most, is the fact that as a teacher my name now begins with Miss. I hear it a thousand times a day, a constant reminder that John and I are still not married, even in our perfect nest. And, as a teacher, I’m kind of a public figure. I feel like everyone in town knows I’m just living with my boyfriend. Standing by the lobster tank at Foster’s Market, one of my pony-tailed students shouts, “Mom, there’s Miss So-and-So,” with the excitement of an Elvis sighting.
How can I be a real Miss So-and-So, when I feel like an unfinished child, still figuring things out, still emotionally needy, raw, incomplete, and searching for I don’t know what. I’m mystified – sounds like – Miss Defied. I know I want to marry John for all the right reasons and all the wrong reasons. Because I love him. Because I want him to make me someone else. As if being his wife can inoculate me from rejection, loneliness, and shame.
Towards the end of September, as leaves fall from the trees, John pops the question. It’s a short engagement.
My mom makes me a wedding dress, a white one I don’t think I deserve, with covered buttons all the way down the back. The English Department Chair organizes a small shower. I receive a handmade afghan, tiered cake plates, a candle snuffer, and so on. I stand in front of the fireplace in my childhood home, encircled by nuclear family and friends. I’m crowned with a ring of pink carnations and ivy. No veil. Gretchen, my college roommate, wears a gray pantsuit as my maid of honor. My brother stands up for John in burnt orange plaid pants that clash with John’s light blue seersucker suit and pink madras tie. With standard vows, John places a wedding band on my healed finger, and I’m no longer a Miss but a Mrs.
John won’t tell me where we’re going for our honeymoon when we wave good-bye from our Vega and head north.
It’s his secret until we park under the portico of The Hanover Inn and climb the stairs to the lobby.
A man in a navy-blue blazer and rep tie looks over the top of his glasses, “May I help you?
John places his hand on a tall antique desk. “We’d like a room for the long weekend.”
I’m as surprised as John, when the man leans forward and laughs, not exactly a laugh, rather a small huff. “I’m sorry. This is Columbus Day weekend. It’s been booked for six months. Leaf peepers, you know.”
But I didn’t know. Having cursed every leaf I had to rake as a child, I can’t believe anyone drives hundreds of miles to see fall foliage, or that John and I, unwittingly, have followed a mass pilgrimage towards the epicenter of New England tourism.
John glances towards me then back to the clerk. “It’s our honeymoon.”
“Sorry, Sir. I can give you reservations for the dining room this evening.”
John takes my hand. “Sure.”
“By the way, tie required.”
That leaves little time to find other lodging. We head south the way we came, and realize every motel we approach has a neon no vacancy sign glowing in the early dark. We travel as far as White River Junction before John turns around and heads back North on a less traveled route. At last, a drift wood sign for The Taft Motel without a pink no vacancy sign beneath.
We pull into the gravel drive and enter a small office with knotty pine paneling. A balding man in a wrinkled polo signs us in and gives us our keys.
While we’re inspecting the musty shower and saggy bed, there’ a knock at the door.
“You mentioned it’s your honeymoon.” Mr. Taft hands John a bottle of champagne and two ruby goblets with cut glass stems. “Brought these from the house.”
John smiles, “Thank you!” and sets the glasses on the dresser for later.
We hurry back to Hanover, and as the maître d’ leads us to our table, I notice my black tights and high heeled boots, a black leotard and a plaid mini kilt, are nothing like the formal attire of the women around me. But when I’m seated at a table set with multiple spoons and forks gleaming in the candlelight, I gaze at my freshly minted husband in his madras tie, and nothing else matters. I spread my linen napkin over my lap. The waiter fills my glass with Perrier, and, with silver tongs, drops a slice of lemon into the sparkling water. The fragrance of citrus rushes up my nostrils as John orders us prime rib and oven-roasted potatoes. Savoring each bite, I know I don’t deserve this delectable man, but he is mine and I am his.
We spend the rest of the weekend touring the Dartmouth Green, The Flume, The Polar Caves, and every other tourist trap between New Hampshire and the Mass line.
It’s dark when we clomp up the stairs to our apartment for the first time as man and wife. I wonder if anything will be different as John finds the light, and there in front of our door, wrapped in plain brown paper, is a package. No address to or from. I take it inside and sit on our rattan couch.
John sets our suitcases down in the bedroom and hurries to join me.
I tear off the paper, revealing a colossal book with a white leather cover. I open the pages edged in gold. There are illustrations of scenes I haven’t seen since Sunday School: Daniel in the Lion’s Den. Moses parting the Red Sea. Jesus in a crowd of children, one child in particular on his lap.
To this day, I‘m not sure who gave us that Bible. At the time, it seemed an odd gift. Neither John nor I were attending church. I was interested in astrology. But something kept me from discarding it, and I have it still, a tangible breadcrumb from my path to Jesus. Evidence that He was watching over me, and my marriage, in ways I couldn’t imagine.