My English teacher, Mrs. A., had short gray hair and dark brown eyes that could pin you like a dead insect. A petite, attractive woman in her early fifties, she was a sharp dresser, down to her sturdy high heels. She never smiled.
We all hated Mrs. A., of course. The unspoken middle-school social code required that we hate any teacher who demanded we work hard and challenge ourselves. Contributing to her unpopularity was the fact that she wouldn’t take shit from us. The pre-teen hooligans who made the new Spanish teacher cry (I’m looking at you, Chad) knew better than to try that crap with Mrs. A. She had a Master’s in English, and like a samurai with a sword, she could cut you with words alone.
I was too immature to realize she was actually amazing. If you’d told me then that I would one day look back on Mrs. A. as a role model, I would have rolled my blue-mascara’d eyes, tossed my Aquanetted bangs, and guffawed before resuming my doodling on the inside of my Trapper Keeper.
Since it’s been a few years (ahem, decades), I don’t recall everything we studied in that class. I do know she made us read George Orwell’s Animal Farm, a wartime political allegory that sailed straight over my 12-year-old head.
But I remember one thing very well. That year, Mrs. A. taught us the gory details of grammar and punctuation. I can still picture those white-chalked sentences on that green blackboard, diagrammed half to death. Most of us wondered how those funny-looking lines drawn around the nouns, verbs, and prepositional phrases could possibly relate to anything in our lives.
Not me, though. I took to proofreading like a cheetah to sprinting. It was my forte. Later in life, it even became my job. But I also learned something in that class that wasn’t in the lesson plan.
One day, Mrs. A. strolled up and down the rows of desks, returning graded quizzes from the sentence structure unit. She stopped and handed me a piece of paper. I’d scored 100 percent. Then she looked me straight in the eyes. I likely flinched.
“Jennifer,” she told me, in her signature wry tone, “If there’s one thing you can do, it’s punctuate.” And a corner of her mouth nudged upward in the closest simulacrum of a smile that she ever produced.
I was a bit flummoxed by this statement. I was happy about my perfect grade. I realized that my stern teacher, who never gave out compliments, was expressing approval of my work. I even felt her remark was somehow… humorous. But my 12-year-old brain couldn’t quite process it.
That evening, I showed my mom my perfect quiz and told her what Mrs. A. had said.
“She said it like that?” Mom asked. I nodded. I remembered it word for word.
“What a left-handed compliment!” Mom exclaimed. Not being familiar with that phrase (nor with its more politically friendly alternative, “backhanded compliment”), I asked Mom what it meant.
“It’s an insult disguised as praise!” Mom declared.
I was stunned. Had my teacher insulted me? I didn’t think so. Mrs. A. was a lot of things: sarcastic, a straight shooter, and so serious. But she wasn’t petty or nasty. I dealt with middle school girls daily; I knew petty and nasty.
Sure, she could have just said, “Jennifer, keep up the good work.” She could have told me, “Nice job on this quiz.” She could have said, “You seem to have a flair for grammar. Continue to apply yourself.”
But she didn’t. It took me years to appreciate why not.
During my childhood, I had dozens of teachers. Yet, all these years later, my mother still remembers Mrs. A. from parent-teacher conferences. “Oh, yes,” Mom said recently when I brought up my old teacher. “I didn’t care for her very much.”
Of the many adjectives one could apply to Mrs. A., likeable probably wouldn’t have been high on the list (terrifying might have been #1 among her students). A couple of my male teachers had that same sort of barbed personality. But the vast majority of my female teachers were gentle, agreeable types. The highest compliment we gave a teacher back then was that he or she was nice.
In a time in my life when being popular was my most pressing concern, there was Mrs. A., who didn’t give a rat’s ass about being liked. I now see how uncommon, even feminist, that was. Most girls are raised to be sweet and diplomatic, to not offend or make anyone uncomfortable. Women like Mrs. A. have the guts to say “Screw that!” and speak their minds. I was too chicken to do that myself, but I knew I admired it. (Thirty years later, I’m still working on it. I’ve made progress. At the rate I’m going, I may yet achieve my dream of becoming an old lady who no longer gives a damn and says whatever the hell she wants.)
Nowadays, I know quite a few people like Mrs. A. It goes against their nature to simply say something in a plain way. They hunger to infuse their utterances with irony and meaning. They yearn to deliver their sentences with style. If that means a little snark, a little edge, so be it. They are hilarious. They are my favorite people.
Mrs. A. was awesome, and I was too young to appreciate it. She really should have been teaching college, where she could have swapped witticisms with her students all day long. I have no idea why she settled for us hormonal middle-school monsters.
If she had said what she said in a sweet way, would I still remember it after all these years? Probably not. Some say proofreaders are born, not made. That was absolutely true in my case, and Mrs. A. knew it. I think she was trying to communicate that to me, without giving me a big head in the process.
I like to imagine Mrs. A. nowadays, retired from teaching, living in a sunny climate where she can hang around at the pool with other feisty old ladies. I hope they spend their days drinking martinis and laughing their asses off. Most folks may not appreciate you, Mrs. A., but I do, even if it took me a few decades to get there.
Jen Mierisch draws inspiration from science fiction, ghost stories, and the wacky idiosyncrasies of human nature. She lives, works, and writes just outside Chicago, Illinois.