Saturday, July 28, 2018

The Teacher in the Turban: The Year I Discovered the Realists

My junior year in high school (1967-68) was, perhaps like all years, a crazy time to be 16 years old. Those nine months included starvation in the Biafran region of Nigeria; the deaths of three astronauts in a test launch at Cape Kennedy; the Tet Offensive in Vietnam; and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. We went to see movies like “The Graduate,” “Bonnie and Clyde,” and “In the Heat of the Night,” and the Beatles were upended their own music and rock music in general with “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

This was the high school year for American history and American literature. American history included a mandatory six-week section on communism; the required text was Masters of Deceit by J. Edgar Hoover. My history teacher was a maverick; rather than read what others said communism was, somehow she got grudging approval for my class to read a large chunk of Das Kapital by Karl Marx. It was actually a brilliant move; we learned that, if Marx was any indication, communism was flat-out boring. Who wanted that?

It was junior English that left the most lasting mark on me. Our teacher, Mrs. Prince, was new to the school, an all-boys public high school. She was tall and rather broad-shouldered and wore her hair in a beehive. And she was a presence. She had a loud voice and talked as much with her hands and arms as she did with her mouth. She wore bright colors, including the occasional turban. 

The first day of class, she announced that the greatest work in American literature was Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann, published the year before. Now, we may have been 16-year-old boys, but even we knew that was something of a ridiculous statement.

To continue reading, please see my post today at Literary Life.

Painting: New York, oil on canvas by George Bellows (1911).

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