THE PROFESSIONAL LIFE of Harriet Stiles was gratifying enough for her. She had been a successful student, and her willing industry, combined with a certain standoffishness toward her classmates and contemporaries, had led her own teachers to think that she had the right stuff to make a good teacher. Her parents had also insisted that she train for a career in teaching; they had persuaded her that, married or not, she would always be assured of a reliable source of income by teaching and that, if they were to be blessed with grandchildren through her, it would be a great convenience to her to enjoy the same periods of leisure during school vacations as did her children. So young Harriet earned a degree in English, acquired the necessary certification in education, and quickly secured a teaching post. She wondered from time to time whether she had the aptitude, inclination, or taste for the kind of work that her elders had marked out for her. But independent thought was not her strong point. And, after all,
there are many who have chosen their careers in life from slighter motives and with more threadbare purposes.
While Ms. Stiles always clung to the illusion that she had made a wise decision, it was a decision whose benefits for her students were less certain. For she had little aptitude for teaching. She was articulate and had some enthusiasm for English literature, finding especially in poetry material for her romantic flights of fancy; but she had little in common with the youngsters with whom she was destined to spend much of forty years. She considered them rude, untidy, and irreverent. Furthermore, they were the children of others and therefore, she was certain, had not enjoyed the advantages of upbringing from which she had always benefited and which, in turn, she had tried to pass on to her own children. It was as if she could not forgive her students for their ignorance and illiteracy. Far from challenging her to greater efforts, their deficiencies merely disappointed and discouraged her. And she never failed to make her disillusionment known to students, friends, and colleagues.
She therefore taught tenth-grade English as if her principal objective was to demonstrate not only her superior understanding of Shakespeare's plays but also her absolute faith in the power of the dramatist's verse to elevate the most barbaric and illiterate temperament to the lofty level of her own sophistication. She made no attempts to project herself into her students' hearts and minds; indeed, the mere thought of such a perversion of her firm conviction threatened to make her ill. Rather, she remained aloof and Olympian, unapproachable and impregnable.
At times, her remoteness led her to deliver herself of views bordering on inscrutability. She might not explain Shakespeare, but she certainly flattered him. To the perennial question "Why do we have to read this stuff, Ms. Stiles?" her inevitable retort was, "When you say 'stuff,' I presume you are referring to the deathless writings of William Shakespeare." Once that point was clarified, she usually punished the miscreant with a penalty fit for the crime: the student would have to stay after class and write out for her a hundred times "A proper respect for Shakespeare is the mark of an educated person." If more justification were sought-more being quite unimaginable to Ms. Stiles-she would wax eloquent on the virtues of the Bard of Avon in language so outmoded that she would have embarrassed the great dramatist himself. Such obscure and prescriptive assertions discouraged further inquiry by her students; anyway, avoiding difficult questions was, in Ms. Stiles's experience, always the best policy. To such questions as "Who was Caesar's wife, and why did she have to be above suspicion?" she knew the answers, and she expected her students to know the answers, too, which many of them came to do. But the greater questions about ultimate purposes floundered like beached whales all over the barren shores of her classroom.
Each of her classes contained a handful of students willing to play the game her way in return for her approval and the high grade that went with it. They became adept at asking the right kinds of questions, giving the right answers, flattering their teacher with the right words. They were her favorites, the ones she called on most frequently and paraded as models before the less pliable and more independent of their classmates, who were instead the subjects of Ms. Stiles's tirades against ignorance and low taste.
It never occurred to her to try to think with the minds of those students who resisted her instruction and thus proved themselves so different from herself. Not only was she incapable of envisioning their difficulties with Shakespeare and with her teaching of his plays, but she would have considered the effort to see Shakespeare from those students' perspectives irrelevant to her purposes. These purposes included getting through the working day without interruptions of any kind from her young charges and keeping them busy with the memorization of definitions and stock explanations so that they would forever after "know" their Shakespeare.
Her dedication to hard, little facts, tiny nuggets of knowledge unearthed by her unerring sense of the irrelevant for the admiration of her students, was legendary. Poetry, for instance, was for her an arrangement of words representing figures of speech, and these she insisted that her students be able to identify and classify correctly; thus hendiadys, metonymy, anaphora,and litotes never escaped the treadmill of her defining faculties, nor did many of her students ever forget their meaning-no small triumph, she thought, over the refractory ways of the human mind.
What did escape her, however, was the dramatic magic of poetry - Caesar's bloodstained toga and his gaping wounds, the struggle between duty and ambition, the contradiction between the lure of liberty and the appeal of successful leadership, the suppression of self-interest in a patriotic cause, and the corruption of good men into petty thieves. The notion that Julius Caesar addresses major questions apposite to contemporary concerns in public and civic life had occurred to her, but
she had no interest in her students' youthful conceptions of current events and thus never made the connection. She taught the play because she had been taught it in the tenth grade; to her it seemed as established and traditional as Shakespeare himself. Besides, the language was not so bawdy as that of Romeo and Juliet, and this saved her from her students' nervous giggling and earthy exchanges about anything with a sexual connotation. And so because what the play was really about eluded her, it remained a mystery to her students. For every question they began with a "why," she had a substitute beginning with a "what."
In her classroom, literature was dead on arrival, and it was the consensus among her former students, when they gathered in class reunions and talked about her, that Ms. Harriet Stiles had killed it.
These class reunions were a test for her. Since she had never learned her students' names when they were in her classes, she could not be expected to remember them later. But their faces-one would have thought that those of the best scholars or the worst miscreants would have lodged with her and that she might inquire after their lives. Instead, with her usual aplomb, she would ask if they could still recite the titles of Shakespeare's plays, and only the hardiest would stand by to try.
But it should not be presumed from all this that Ms. Stiles was a total failure as a teacher. Parents rarely complained to the principal about her, and she maintained good order in class. While she was stiff and unbending, she probably offered no worse a model to her students than those of her colleagues who scorned order and thought that the ideal of a disciplined classroom, to say nothing of a disciplined mind, was outdated. So though not a popular or inspiring teacher, she was accepted as innocuous but dull and, like the weather, probably inevitable. One of her students seemed to characterize her perfectly: "I suppose she knew something about Shakespeare," he said, "but she never seemed able to share it with us."