|A teacup on a saucer. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
My competitor was a red headed boy named Tommy; he and I shared an Irish/Scot background, and a love of words. For a while, he wrote about one thing and I wrote about another. I don't remember any of our poems, or topics chosen in the early part of the school year. But as the December holidays approached, we both chose to write about Christmas. He wrote about Santa and Frosty, and I wrote about the Madonna and the stable. We each left a poem on our teacher's desk every morning. We would watch as she sat at her desk through lunch time (and we sat at ours, opening metal lunch boxes and swapping cookies.) There was no cafeteria in the nineteen fifties, and students and teachers ate in the classrooms together. Conduct grades induced a quiet, healthier setting than the noisy cafeterias of today. She would sip her soup from a shiny silver spoon, and drink from her tea cup with her pinkie extended. And she would read our poetry before finishing her soup and tea. Her perfect white tea cup was always decorated with small foil stick-on stars of many colors, carefully and artfully applied by whichever student had been chosen that morning for good behavior. Each day it returned to her desk clean and fairly begging for decoration, and stood as another motivator for good conduct.
One day, following the third day in a row that she had chosen to read Tommy's poetry featuring talking snowmen and hungry reindeer, I dared to approach her desk at lunch time. When she saw my hand raised she raised her eyebrows and pursed her shiny red lips (which always left their imprint among the shiny stars on her tea cup.) She summoned me to her desk with a crook of her finger, barely perceptible to anyone but me. I walked carefully between my classmates' desks, all bolted to the floor in perfect rows, but overflowing with precariously placed wax paper wrappings that exceeded the space left by the open lunchboxes. When I reached her desk I lifted my eyes from their cautious focus on the floor and my feet, and look into hers. I timidly asked "Did you like my poem today?"
Her normally placid expression was replaced with a serious look; her eyebrows went back down and her lips pressed together tightly. We looked at each other's eyes for a moment, and then hers looked down at her desk, and at the pages of poetry next to her tea cup. The classroom was so quiet I realized that no one was breathing, or chewing, or sipping warm milk through a straw. I waited.
"I did like your poem, Miss Crawford, but I cannot read it to the class. You have a strong faith, and have shared that in your poems this week. But it is not a faith that I can share with your classmates. There are rules about things like that, here in the classroom."
I didn't know whether to smile and thank her for liking my poem, or apologize for writing the wrong kind of poem. My lip began to tremble, and my clasped hands sprung apart, to avoid the appearance of being folded in prayer. I nodded my head in acceptance, and made no comment. Her eyes returned to mine then, and kindness seeped between us. With a small smile, I walked back between the rows of desks looking straight ahead while my classmates quickly moved wax papers away from the edges of their desks.
I wrote no more poetry that year, and the following year, having reached sixth grade and approaching puberty, I, like my two older sisters before me, was sent to the nuns and attended all girl parochial schools for the next five years, during which I wrote no poetry. We still had no cafeteria, and as the building was very old and condemned by the city's building codes there was no running water, either. Those who lived nearby went home for their lunch, and we who lived out of parish sat outside on the school steps, or might be invited by a classmate to go home with friends, or went to the convent to "use the facilities." But when my family moved out of the city, I returned to a public high school, boys and girls together. And the poetry resumed.
But next week, I'll offer Vol. II the same way!