Thursday, February 26, 2009
Early encouragement, English style
When I went to an English boarding school, the other kids paid a lot of attention to me and my writing -- now I think they were just being polite to the only American and one of the youngest children in the school. But at the time, I took their reaction for granted. OF COURSE, other kids liked my stories! They were great! I always assumed other children would like me; I assumed (with good reason) that most adults wouldn't. So I was surprised when my teachers praised my writing, too. The headmistress, though, was another matter.
The Headmistress of this school had an aristocratic authority that kept everyone -- even me, determined as I was to be unimpressed by anyone or anything English -- in awe of her. She moved and inclined her head like a queen -- and she seemed like one, even though she usually wore baggy tweeds. Her back was always straight, from the posture board her governess made her wear, she told us once. She had long thick white/grey hair worn up, always, except when she emerged from her bedroom to reprove us for talking after Lights Out. Then it was in one long thick braid. Classical Greek statues look straight out over noses like hers; her eyes were round and deep blue --almost violet. I thought she was beautiful, and I was a little afraid of her, too: she didn't like me much.
The only times we'd ever talked alone until Hobby Day were when I was in trouble for something: breaking a window, running away, organizing the whole class to misbehave, stuff like that. (To anyone who has read Blow Out the Moon -- there were more of these incidents than I could fit into the book.)
Every year on Hobby Day everyone put things they'd made in the Art Room, and all the teachers and other students looked at them. I put in a thirty-two page story. I was very proud of it -- especially, of how long it was. In fact, it's a really bad story about some children who hide in the forest with their mother during World War II. It's online now because at a school visit (after the kids had asked to hear it and I had said no, it was really bad -- this is not false modesty: some of my early stories WERE good, but this one isn't), someone said,
"Why don't you put it on your Web site -- so we can see how much you improved?"
By the time I'd entered it in Hobby Day,
I think everyone in the school had read it, everyone except the Headmistress, whom we called Marza. "Marza" was, supposedly, the Greek word for mother.
Marza didn’t say anything when she saw the story, but when she left the Art Room, she took it with her. The next day after prayers she said she wanted to see me in her office. Usually, only seniors were called in there and even they weren’t called in often. Everyone looked at me, wondering.
When I went in, she was at her desk, sitting up very straight. She motioned for me to stand right next to her so I did. My story was on the desk in front of her. I was standing so close to her that I could see right into her eyes. I was a little scared — they looked so serious.
“I read your story,” she said, “and it was a good story. However — you made one mistake.”
My throat started to hurt the way it does when you’re about to cry and trying hard not to. I’d been so proud of the story and I had wanted her to like it so much and she didn’t — I’d said something terrible, wrong, I could tell by the way she was looking at me.
She drew herself up proudly, like a Queen, and said:
“The Germans never landed in England.”
I started to cry — I didn’t know why saying they had was so bad, but I understood that it was a terrible thing to have done.
“No foreign army has ever invaded us,” she said. “They have often tried, they have never succeeded.”
She talked more and said a poem about “this little world, this precious stone set in a silver sea” and “moat” and “this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.”
I tried to stop crying and listen properly but I couldn’t, I’d wanted that story to be good so badly. She stopped talking and pulled me onto her lap.
Finally I stopped crying. I sat up straight and pulled my handkerchief out of my sleeve (in England then all children carried handkerchiefs tucked into the sleeve of their sweaters). Marza looked at it and I did, too: a crumpled ball, wet in some places, stiff yellow green in others. Gently, she tucked it back into my sleeve.
“Most wet and uncomfy,” she said.
She handed me a clean one and I blew my nose and dried my eyes and the rest of my face.
“There, that’s better, isn’t it?” Marza said. She smiled and gave me a little squeeze. “Off you go — and it IS a good story, you know.”
When I walked back to my form room I felt proud of my writing again. “The Richardsons” was a good story. Marza liked it.
And I thought about the rest: It was odd — I never would have thought of Marza as cuddling anyone. She didn’t make me feel embarrassed about crying, or the handkerchief — it must have looked disgusting to her, but she didn’t make a face or a disgusted comment, she acted as though it — and my crying — were perfectly all right.
That, I think, is the first time I really got what being truly polite means: thinking about how other people feel and acting in the way that will make them feel best.
Before that, I had admired Marza but I had been a little bit afraid of her, too. From then on, I wasn’t afraid of her anymore, maybe in awe of her — she was a true lady. And after that, whenever I heard or read the phrase “a great lady,” I thought of her.
When I left the school, she wrote to my parents and said, in part: "If she does not become a well-known writer, I shall be very much surprised."
Marza, many years later -- her hair is much messier, and her smile much warmer, than they were when I knew her. I've always been glad I went back to the school as an adult to thank her and tell her what her encouragement meant to me.
Posted by Libby Koponen at 3:00 AM