THE LAST HONORS CLASS
True or false: Macbeth was a happy king.
Eunice Schmidt actually put that question on a test she gave to her honors English class. Was she kidding? Maybe she wanted us to break out laughing when we read it, which we did. We laughed easily during the spring of 1965, our final semester at Beverly Hills High School.
That spring was Miss Schmidt’s final semester, too. After thirty-five years of teaching at Beverly, she planned to retire in June. We’d become her last students.
Miss Schmidt could have looked cool. A gray streak cut through the middle of her brown hair. A wide grin revealed an adorable gap between her two front teeth, and her voice could have turned silky if she’d only tried. But Miss Schmidt wore white daisy earrings and dresses with wide lace collars. Worse—so went the rumor—she hadn’t changed her lesson plan in three decades, and she’d never taught an honors class.
In other words, we were not her typical charges. Our group featured a state speech champion, a student body officer, a valedictorian, an editor of the school paper, a ham radio operator, and almost every one of Beverly High’s twelve National Merit finalists, including me. One girl spoke five languages. Almost everyone aspired to the Ivy League, the Little Three, the Seven Sisters, MIT, and Stanford. The twenty-one or so of us in the class, most fast friends since the ninth grade and many before then, had taken honors classes in every subject. The year before, the three brightest teachers in the English Department had blasted us through the required curriculum and then exposed us to modern European theater. Ibsen. Strindberg. Giraudoux. Shaw. Lorca. Brecht. Ionesco. Now as seniors we were taking courses at UCLA. This was 1965, when California basked in its golden prime, especially Beverly Hills, whose students came from families who venerated culture and had filled their homes with books, art, and music.
We were arrogant, spoiled brats.
I wonder if Miss Schmidt realized something was going awry on the first day, when she told us to elect a classroom president. With this single move, Miss Schmidt proved herself seriously out of touch with us, with the entire school, actually. She was engaging in an exercise we’d shed after the sixth grade. “Nominations are now open,” she said.
Nobody needed to caucus about what to do.
Lucie nominated Chuck.
Chuck nominated Rozzie.
Rozzie nominated Bobby.
Bobby nominated me.
I nominated Rich.
Rich nominated Lucie.
Everybody in the room became a candidate.
We elected Chuck, a tennis player who wore thick glasses, excelled in science, and abhorred student government.
It became clear Miss Schmidt planned to teach as though we were third graders with McGuffey Readers. Other than Macbeth and maybe Hamlet, she said, our studies would emphasize British poetry. Then Miss Schmidt passed out a handwritten syllabus that said, “Lesson in Scansion,” another exercise we’d learned in grammar school.
The bell rang. Outside in a courtyard called the English Patio, one of the National Merit finalists, a small boy with a cherubic face, a flop of black hair, and a wicked sense of humor looked at me and said, “This is asinine.”
“So now what?” asked Ron, a Dartmouth applicant who had the head of a Roman emperor and curly brown hair he’d lose a decade later.
“Well,” said Rich, the Boys’ League president and another Dartmouth applicant, “not all of us are going to be working up to capacity in this class.”
“I’m with you,” I said, resolving not just to work below capacity, but not to work at all, to ignore Miss Schmidt’s assignments and take her tests on the fly. I’d won awards for impromptu speaking. I figured I could bring that talent to bear in this farce of a course.
A week later, before our first quiz, Miss Schmidt ordered us to assume what she called “battle stations.” Normally, Miss Schmidt had arranged the class so that half of our desks ran along the windows and the other half along the opposite wall. That way she could teach from the middle of the room. But now she made us space our desks far apart and spread them everywhere so we couldn’t see one another’s work. All this for a spelling test, words like carburetor, conception, and chord. We hadn’t seen a spelling test since the eighth grade, or was it the sixth? After three years of teachers who trusted us and never proctored an exam, Miss Schmidt was questioning our honesty. I could feel the resentment building.
It’s clear to me now that Miss Schmidt failed to grasp the difference between poetry and novels, poetry and plays, or poetry and the movies some of our parents helped make. Novels, plays, and movies take us through time. Poetry makes us stand still. In the words of Ian McEwan, “…poetry balances itself on the pinprick of the moment.” To appreciate the form requires a skill teenagers usually lack and, I’m sure now, Eunice Schmidt had lost. She didn’t help us analyze the words or ask us to hear the beauty of the phrases. Instead Miss Schmidt plastered slashes and circumflexes across the blackboard and then ordered us to read verses in the hippity-hop rhythm of scansion. She rammed Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Pied Beauty” into a rigid matrix as though one could regiment trout that swim and finches’ wings. With her exaggerated cadence, she even denuded Shakespeare. Her handwritten assignment sheet ordered us to “scan ‘When, in Disgrace…’ and establish the metrical pattern.”
Years later, I reread Shakespeare’s sonnet, focusing on meaning, not rhythm, and by doing so, it summoned forth tears. “When, in Disgrace…” could have had a profound effect on teenagers like me who, concerned with status, curse their fate, desire “this man’s art and that man’s scope.” Shakespeare could have shown us what wealth flows from “sweet love.”
* * *
One day the following week, while Miss Schmidt expounded on iambs and spondees (“You need to know them,” she said, “because as sure as Jeeves’ mustache, you may see them on your test”), my side of the room inched our desks oh so slowly forward. Nobody planned this move; like electing Chuck classroom president, it simply happened, a spontaneous prank.
The moment Miss Schmidt turned toward my side of the room, the group near the windows hitched their desks forward. This exercise continued, one side then the other, shrinking her teaching space until she didn’t know what to do. Maybe her depth perception was shutting down.
A day or two later, Gary devised his own subtle taunt. When Miss Schmidt asked what we thought of a poem—a rare event—he raised his hand and prefaced the answer by saying, “We have to consider its psychological aspects.” Miss Schmidt had said nothing to us about psychology. Gary had plucked the topic from the air, and as he spoke in his deep voice, he kept a friendly expression on his round face while the rest of us tittered.
Howard, another genius with a broadcast-quality voice, started larding into his speech long words I didn’t know. “Byron, Shelley, and Keats wrote with sedulous care, but since you call them the ‘enfants terribles,’ Miss Schmidt, do you think they employed heuristic techniques in their poetry?”
I delighted in these stunts. At the same time, I missed the teachers we respected and the aha moments they’d provided us—Mrs. Eddie’s discussions of theorems, Monsieur Jacquard’s explanations of French subjunctives, Mr. Occhipinti’s lectures about modern European culture, Mr. Quinlan’s forays into the nature of man. We were a group who’d spent three years deeply inside our studies, glad to be there. Miss Schmidt was wasting our time.
At the end of the period, Miss Schmidt handed out another handwritten sheet titled “Reading for Poetry Unit.” Squeezed into a makeshift rectangle at the bottom of the page, she wrote, “Hamlet to be sandwiched in—somehow!”
I typed up an “operation plan” for an upcoming test, a mischief list which read in part:
“10:40—Everyone will drop his pencil or pen, regardless of whether or not we are taking test.
“11:00—Yawn, then cough.
“11:15—Converge near window farthest from Schmidt’s desk. Act as if you see something outside. Act frightened and amazed.”
The night after I passed out copies to the class, Rozzie telephoned. She was short, maybe five feet tall, with black hair and an angelic face. Few had more school spirit. And Rozzie was the conscience of the class.
In her pixie tone of voice, she said something like, “Aren’t you going to hurt Miss Schmidt’s feelings?”
As I said “Who cares?” I gripped the receiver hard.
“Oh, Tony. Don’t you feel sorry for her?”
I should have. I was beating a lame horse already en route to pasture. But thanks to being a senior with graduation three months away, I felt I had a license to target this woman.
Rozzie and I had been friends since the sixth grade. Out of respect, I dialed back my operation plan to a single collective yawn, which only the boys joined in.
When my paper came back with a red C across the front page, I acted as if I didn’t care. After Miss Schmidt discussed the right answers to the absurd questions in her test, Gary said we should “consider the psychological aspects” of the exam, Howard threw a four-syllable word into the mix, and I sat and smirked.
* * *
One morning, Miss Schmidt stood at the lectern and fixed us with a look of vicious sadness.
“They told me I’d be teaching a bright group,” she said in the tonal groove of a person emotionally shut down. “I began to think all of you were too advanced for me.”
I shifted in my seat. For once, everyone was paying attention.
Miss Schmidt said she’d walked into to the guidance office and looked up our IQs.
Even the birds outside our classroom seemed to go silent.
Miss Schmidt stared at the floor before returning her eyes to the class. “You’re not so hot,” she said. “You’re only in the 130s and the 140s.”
I didn’t know how to handle this boundary crossing. Miss Schmidt had stooped to conquer. We weren’t supposed to know our IQs. None of my classmates said anything until, moments later, Miss Schmidt turned to the day’s lesson, boring and useless except for what happened when I failed to name ten characteristics of the ballad.
Rich, who’d win funniest laugh in the senior poll, called out, “Okay, Tony, we know who’s in the 130s.”
* * *
For years Miss Schmidt had been the faculty sponsor of the senior prom, the Aloha Ball, a theme she’d picked and cherished. Several of us belonged to the senior prom committee. At its next meeting, held a day or two later in Miss Schmidt’s classroom, someone said, “It’s time to change the theme.”
The suggestion wasn’t spontaneous. Frustrated with Miss Schmidt’s behavior, several of us had lobbied the committee to pick a new theme.
I stopped eating my tuna fish sandwich and said, “Yes, the Aloha Ball is too old-fashioned. It’s a silly name.”
Before Miss Schmidt could say anything, we whooped through a resolution to rename the prom the Candlelight Ball, a unanimous vote that made Miss Schmidt’s eyes glisten and made me grin. I bolted the rest of my sandwich and washed it down with a can of Bubble Up.
Miss Schmidt said nothing about this vote until the prom committee began publicizing the event. Then one morning during class, in the deadened monotone she’d employed to reveal our low IQs, Miss Schmidt talked of proms and dances. She was a tall woman, which might have retarded her love life. Once there was a man, she said, who’d asked her to a prom.
Unsure what was coming, the class fidgeted.
Eunice Schmidt bowed her sixty-year-old head as she continued. “I said no. I wasn’t going to be another notch on his gun.”
Our English teacher, it appeared, had never tasted Shakespeare’s “sweet love.” Maybe that’s why she couldn’t bear to savor Sonnet 29, couldn’t plumb beyond the meter of the words and wouldn’t let us try. An incipient feeling of pity came in, which I quickly quashed in favor of thinking her remarks sounded ridiculous.
Before the period ended, Miss Schmidt passed out copies of Hamlet, our last assignment of the year. It was June, two weeks before the semester would end.
That night, I opened to Act I. I moved my notebook from one side of my wooden desk to the other. I gazed at the pocket books on my shelves. Made a telephone call. Read Act I up to the ghost’s first appearance and didn’t look up hard words like liegemen.
I stopped to make another phone call, longer this time because I wanted to ask the girl I’d called to the senior prom and it took me half an hour to work up the nerve to do so. I returned to Hamlet. Two pages later, I called one of my pals to announce that the girl had said yes. I read another page of Hamlet. I read the minutes of our last student council meeting. I fingered the little tiki god which hung from a thumbtack on the side of my desk. Somebody called me. We talked for ten minutes. I fought my way through another scene from Hamlet. I brushed my teeth. In bed, I finished reading a James Bond novel.
“Oh, Miss Schmidt,” someone asked the next morning, “was Hamlet a happy prince?”
* * *
During the three June days Miss Schmidt planned to devote to Hamlet, she announced that Richard Fancy, an actor and one of her former students, would visit us and read portions of the play.
Richard Fancy had a face that could catch fire on a dime, a forehead already heading north, and a voice range to suit most of the Bard’s characters. Standing in the middle of the room and pivoting in order to see us all, he read from Act I, Scene 5. I listened, rapt, as Mr. Fancy’s voice and arms revealed Hamlet’s reaction the moment the ghost told him who’d killed his father.
“Oh my prophetic soul, my uncle.”
Over lunch forty years later, Richard would tell me that he and Miss Schmidt had bonded because he knew she was “vulnerable, with feelings on her surface.” He labeled her “a genuine human being” who enjoyed her students and had a “calling to teach.” What had happened to her? Miss Schmidt had earned a masters in journalism. She was the first woman to work at the Chicago Tribune’s Paris bureau. She’d established several USO clubs during World War II. Had she burned out by 1965? I tried to imagine how our class would have fared with an incisive, engaged Miss Schmidt leading us through the brilliance of British literature.
Despite his superb presentation, Richard Fancy couldn’t save Hamlet for me. Moments after he left the classroom, Miss Schmidt made a comment about the play that was too inane for me to remember. She’d poisoned my enthusiasm and probably most of the class’s as well. We remained, to borrow from Shakespeare, the indifferent children of the earth, delighting in throwing about our brains—whatever their IQs. In class the next day, Gary, his MIT acceptance in hand, said, “We have to consider the psychological aspects of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.”
* * *
Prom night. My date and I arrived at the Beverly Hills Hotel, walked up the red carpet, turned left through the lobby, and descended the broad staircase to the Crystal Room. At least the committee had not changed the prom’s traditional venue.
When the time came to have the photographer take our picture, my date and I saw Miss Schmidt, a few feet from the camera, seated in an armchair against the wall in the ballroom’s darkest corner. Clad in a black funeral dress.
She’d cramped her hair into a bun, and around her neck, Miss Schmidt wore a lei.
I introduced her to my date, who stood at least a foot shorter than Miss Schmidt and whose hair was as black as Miss Schmidt’s dress.
Miss Schmidt’s return greeting felt dead. She didn’t rise. Her face held its frozen mien as she drifted into monotone.
“The Aloha Ball used to be lovely,” Miss Schmidt said. “Each year we’d arrange to have leis flown in from Honolulu, leis for all the girls.” Her thick lips barely parted as she spoke.
In an elegant voice, my date said, “How nice.”
“The girls took them home,” Miss Schmidt said, “and iced them so they’d last through graduation and into the summer.” As she spoke, she fingered her lei. Her limpid eyes didn’t leave me, even as the photographer positioned my date and me for the camera.
Had I read Hamlet, I might have noticed a parallel between Miss Schmidt and the Danish prince. As theater critic Charles McNulty has observed, Hamlet “reveals more of his mind than any other [protagonist] in Shakespeare.” With insights into her love life, the way she’d mourned the loss of her prom, and her reactions to our ridicule, Miss Schmidt had revealed to us more of her sensitive psyche than other members of the Beverly High faculty. I’d missed what Richard Fancy had perceived.
* * *
About ten days before graduation, Rozzie and Lucie, both bound for Smith College, told the class we ought to “do something nice for Miss Schmidt.” Even I agreed. Finals were approaching, and as Shakespeare might have said, conscience had made a coward of me, too.
All of us met one weeknight at Ron’s house north of Sunset Boulevard. In his capacious kitchen with a sprawling island, we—meaning the girls—baked Miss Schmidt a cake full of graham crackers and chocolate frosting.
Ron, now Dartmouth-bound, acted the most gracious of hosts. “Want anything? Chips? A Coke? Some grapes?”
Rich said, “I can’t believe we’re doing this.” He was in a fine mood, for Dartmouth had taken him too.
Across the top of the cake, Lucie and Rozzie wrote a line from The Canterbury Tales, changing only the gender. Lucie put the cake in her lap and drove it to school the next morning, but entering the student parking lot, she struck a speed bump, causing the cake to slip and in her words, “get mushed.” At least Miss Schmidt could still read the words—“And gladly would she learn and gladly teach.”
Miss Schmidt smiled and then frowned. Her eyes misted. I don’t think she knew how to handle our gesture. Were we mocking her, or were we apologizing? The latter for Rozzie and Lucie. For me, an excuse to party on a school night in violation of our school’s manual, The Norman Guide. As Miss Schmidt looked at us, angelic at our desks, glowing in sunlight that beamed through the clerestory windows, I’m sure she envisioned us laughing about her the night before as the girls stirred the dough.
When the bell rang, Miss Schmidt asked me to stay behind.
Her red grade book lay open to my page, full of the low scores I’d earned on several tests, C’s justly earned, and she allowed her lips to form a smile. Her voice reeked of satisfaction as she said, “And by the way, a C in this class counts twice.” She was right, because in order to create time for us to take classes at UCLA, the school had compressed all of senior English into a single semester.
I dissembled, something like, “I’ve been trying.” Then, spotting a stray A or two in her book, I asked if I had a chance of getting a B.
“We’ll have to see,” she said.
We had one more test to go. Hamlet.
I said “Okay,” or something equally insipid.
Miss Schmidt looked at me calmly. “Is this your first C?”
I answered honestly. “No.” I’d received C’s in algebra and trigonometry. But never in English.
She slowly moved her head as she dangled an illusory lifeline. “Well, read Hamlet.” I still wonder how Miss Schmidt knew I had yet to do so.
Our interview was over.
I couldn’t absorb the play in two nights. Shakespeare lost me after “not to be.” Hamlet became words on the page, many of which had gone extinct. The test proved a horror, full of hard objective questions and an essay question I couldn’t begin to answer.
My C in English became real. Not only had I misread my ability to wing through Miss Schmidt’s syllabus, I’d misread my friends. They may not have worked up to capacity, but they’d worked. I’m sure that when Miss Schmidt pored over her grade book, she found I was the only person who wobbled on the margin. I’ll never know if regret or thoughts of a Hamlet revenge drama filled her head as her hand swung that crescent into my report card. My grade probably constituted the last C Miss Schmidt meted out in her career.
For want of a test, I lost a grade. For want of a grade, I lost the Sealbearer Award—a gold scholarship cord the president of the Board of Education would have draped around my neck. I lost the Principal’s Honor List, the lowest academic honor the school had to offer. I lost Wesleyan and Williams. They struck me from their waiting lists. When in disgrace indeed. At the worst possible time, I’d let arrogance stop me from learning.
If I live to ninety-three, as Miss Schmidt did, I’ll never forget my experience with her. A year later Wesleyan let me in as a transfer student. From there, I carried away a degree cum laude, with honors in my major and a Phi Beta Kappa key. But those laurels have not cauterized the devastation of my high school graduation, nor did they cancel the painful sense of waste I now feel from goading my teacher instead of learning the material listed on her mimeographed handouts.
Something made me save those sheets. On one of them, Miss Schmidt named poets from England’s Puritan period (Milton, Donne), age of reason (Dryden and Pope), transition period (Goldsmith and Gray), Romantic period (Blake, Burns, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Scott, Byron, Shelley, Keats), and Victorian era (Tennyson and the Brownings).
Rabbis have observed, so I’m told, that one minute wasted is a minute of learning lost. Now I remain loosely educated in English literature, which still hurts. At least I’ve read Hamlet again, this time with sedulous care.