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Long Quiet Highway, Page 2

Natalie Goldberg

  Often I crawled under the covers with my grandmother in the evening and she told me stories about how her family arrived at Ellis Island from Poland when she was three years old and how she hardly had an accent. She told me how she had met my grandfather: Her older sister Dora owned a small delicatessen in Manhattan and a polite, clean, soft-spoken man came in one day. Auntie Dora said to herself, “Now that’s the man for Rosie.” He took my grandmother on a carriage ride around Central Park. She was married at seventeen.

  I asked her to tell this story to me over and over again. Each time she elaborated more. That ordinary moment of man meets woman became mythical to her granddaughter. And indeed it was. It was my lineage. I was the result of that meeting; each time she began the telling with: “Shall I tell you a story? About a glory? How to begin it? There’s nothing in it.”

  As Mr. Clemente and I talked, he suddenly interrupted me. “Wait a minute! I do remember you. You were a thin brown-haired girl. You sat in the third seat, fourth row. Why, Natalie, I had no idea you cared. In all those years you never said a word to me.”

  “I was unhappy,” I told him.

  “I understand,” he said on the phone and I’m sure he was nodding.

  I was like that. I took things in deeply, but no one ever knew. In fifth grade I was mad for my teacher, Mr. Berke. He was an energetic man who wore a brown suit and loved science. He taught us scientific experimentation: hypothesis, procedure, materials, observation, conclusion. The idea of hypothesis drove me wild. Hypothesis was something you intuited, but until it was proven, it had only the shimmering quality of a mirage. It entered the realm of the religious: a presence you could not touch. But I wanted to touch it. I became the little scientist. I moved right in. I experimented. I boiled water. The water evaporated and disappeared. I held a glass plate above the boiling water. Steam collected on the glass. I had made water into air into water again. I was delighted. I created a conclusion from my hypothesis that a liquid can become a gas and then become a liquid again. I proved that things change. I touched the transitory nature of life.

  In Mr. Berke’s science class we used microscopes, glass slides, test tubes. At home I walked around with slides, sticking them in the toilet water, having my grandfather breathe on one, always looking for specimens to be examined. I was ever present if someone cut themselves; I could then catch a blood sample to examine magnified. I was mad for science, though my father and sister made fun of me for wanting a microscope for Hanukkah and a chemistry set for my birthday. Girls shouldn’t want those things.

  Mr. Berke didn’t know how crazy I was about the class. He was blind to my young heart and to what he had opened in it. When he handed back our big reports on the midwestern states, he came to Carol Heitz’s paper and said proudly, “Carol received the highest grade in the class, ninety-seven,” and he praised her. Then he continued calling out student names and grades and handing back the reports. Finally, after what seemed an interminable amount of time, he called my name: “Natalie.” He opened to the first page of the report to announce my grade. “Oh, you got ninety-nine,” and he handed me the paper.

  At the end of the year when we were promoted to sixth grade, we were put into tracked classes. I was not in IA, IB, or IC, the top tracks. Mr. Berke placed me in 2A, Mr. Nolan’s class, the average group, where we spent the year making Ivory soap sculptures of the Parthenon and Mr. Nolan continually tripped over my school bag as he paced the aisles.

  On the last day of Mr. Berke’s class when I was handed my fifth-grade report card and the letter saving I was promoted to 2A, I went home weeping. I sat in the sunken living room of our split-level house across from my grandmother and mother on the couch, me on the old, reupholstered stuffed chair, a chasm of brown carpet between us, and cried because I wouldn’t be able to learn a foreign language in 2A. My grandmother and mother were bewildered. Why would anyone want to know anything besides English anyway?

  The teachers I loved in school were Mr. Clemente, Mr. Berke, and Mr. Cates. Mr. Cates taught a special literature class my junior and senior years of high school. I can’t remember what it was called. What I do remember is we read The Ballad of the Sad Café, The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment. Mr. Cates sat on top of a student desk, his feet on the attached wooden chair, his chin in his hand, and asked us a “big” question, “Who would you rather be—Dmitri or Alyosha in the Brothers?” and we would discuss this for days. “What is desire?” he asked us after we read a Tennessee Williams play, and my young heart leaped at what I was invited to explore. I jumped from one idea to another, trying to decide what desire was. I thought there was an answer, and that it could be known without experience. I didn’t know it then that you only discover desire in the flame of it, only know love when loving.

  What I adored in Mr. Cates’s class was the opportunity to talk, not just myself, but as a whole class, to have a discussion. Someone said something, another person disagreed or elaborated, and all our minds were free, thoughts were free and equal. You had a mind and you thought. You had a right to form the nebulous energy racing through you into words, to form those words with tongue, teeth, jaws, lips, to move your mouth and speak. This might seem elementary. I’m not talking about high-level debate. I’m talking about a scrawny brown-haired girl whose braces had just been taken off her teeth, who sat in a big public school classroom and was suddenly sprung to life. Her mind and feelings had a voice and she spoke words into the empty space between herself and Mr. Gates, and for her every word—even “the” and “am”—were huge. I’d never had a discussion before, especially about something intangible. At home we discussed what we would have for dinner, or if I was warm enough when I went out in the morning, or what clothing did not fit and would be returned to Abraham and Strauss. My family cared about the given, the concrete: peas, lamb chops, a sale at Macy’s, a sore throat, a beautiful face, strong legs, the ring of a phone, the neighbor knocking at our door.

  At a large extended family dinner I once asked, hoping to initiate a discussion, “Why did Hitler kill so many Jews? Where was God?” We were studying World War II in history class. My relatives turned to me. They were happy just a moment ago, being together and eating my grandmother’s chicken. Why did I have to bring that up? My father, like their great knight, replied, “He hated them and there is no God.” That settled it. They all nodded. My grandmother offered me another breast, my favorite, and I accepted it. Meanwhile, I sank into a loneliness that isolated me from words for that loneliness. No God? Hatred? What was hatred? I wanted to examine it, as we did in Mr. Cates’s class. Could I hate like that? What caused it? Does my grandmother hate? Does my father, my mother? If someone, an uncle, a cousin, had turned to me, seen into my heart just then, and said, “Whv, Natalie, you’re lonely,” there would have been a great relief. That nontangible, isolated state would have been named and then my lonely existence would have become conscious. But that didn’t happen. On many occasions I was told, “You think too much. It will get you in trouble.” Thought was useless. You couldn’t eat it or buy it. Finally, it was like God. It didn’t really exist.

  But I had discovered in school that thought had energy. I became excited in Mr. Cates’s class. I said words and became alive. I spoke, and with speech I rose out of the suburban ashes like a phoenix. I flew. I soared—for a few minutes anyway—and then sank back into the stupor I was so used to.

  Where were the women teachers? Remember the times: the fifties and early sixties. There was only one, a Madame Dujac, straight out of France, whom I liked and remember. She stood with her hands under her armpits in a buttoned light blue cardigan, her swaying breasts held in by a full slip. She demanded that we know her language. (I had advanced from Mr. Nolan into the honors program and could take French.) We memorized Guy de Maupassant. I learned the words, but I did not get the accent or the pronunciation. I thought if it was r you pronounced it like the r in river; I said each letter as I knew it in English. My Brooklyn accent seemed to become stronger in F
rench. Every time I spoke her language, Madame Dujac shook her head violently, which swung her long pearl-earringed lobes back and forth, and she pursed her lips. I tried. I could see and understand the words, but I could not read them aloud.

  What excited me about Madame was her energy, her love of French, her urgency to make us, these little savages, this all-girl class from hicktown Farmingdale, learn the music, the depth, the beauty of her native language. And if not that, we should at least not sound like complete fools.

  How did she end up among us anyway? A real live Frenchwoman in suburban Farmingdale? I didn’t know. Once she said, in French, “Excusez moi, je dois aller aux toilettes,” and bolted out the door. I nudged Mary Ellen in front of me. “What’d she say?” Donna, sitting to my right, intercepted my question and answered loudly, “She has to pee.” The class giggled. I sat there slightly amazed. You mean, Madame Dujac had to go to the bathroom? She had human functions? She was so exotic to me, I had trouble imagining her as a regular person. In those days, all teachers were in the nonhuman category, but Madame, especially, was a completely foreign breed. Nothing I could emulate.

  I heard years later that my father knew her husband. He often came into my father’s Aero Tavern and ordered beer and thick pastrami sandwiches. He was a visiting scientist at the Republic Aviation plant nearby. He told my father that Madame could not believe the immaturity of the high school students she taught.

  Once in class I accidentally said, “Je suis française,” I meant to say, “I speak French,” not “I am French,” but that was too much for her, that I dared express, even accidentally, that I was French. She had a ruler in her hand. She pushed out her lips as though about to kiss the air, whipped the stick in circles above her head, and charged at me.

  “You are not French. You are not French,” she said in perfect English, breaking the strict rule of “only French spoken in this class.”

  I was quick that morning: “Je sais! Je sais!” I yelled out. She froze near the window, catching herself in midswing, and saw what she was up to; the whole class, including Madame, broke down laughing in huge relief.

  “Na-ta-lee,” she said in a sweeping staccato, “someday you will come visit me in Paris.” I was delighted, but I knew that was ridiculous. I had the great fortune to live near New York City. My aunt Rachel told me, “After New York, there is no place else to go.” My family orbited the Big Apple, driving to the Bronx, to Brooklyn, even a few times dipping down to New Jersey, and once or twice heading for the Catskills, always near, though rarely actually going into that great celestial island, Manhattan. No, no reason to go to Paris. We had New York. I would probably never travel as far as that. It was beyond my imagination, but I was flattered that Madame invited me to her hometown, and I nodded my head and smiled.

  Mr. Berke loved science; Mr. Clemente, literature; Mr. Cates, thinking; Madame Dujac, French. Each one of them planted a seed and I honor them for it. But some of the other teachers had their effect, too—not always because they were good teachers.

  It was Mr. Moscowitz’s first year of teaching. He wore a plaid suit, was short, and had terrible facial acne. His only crime was he could not control the class. Control was everything. Mr. Moscowitz didn’t carry authority in his body, so it didn’t matter that he asked you to sit down. You wouldn’t, and you didn’t believe his threats about being sent to the principal or being suspended, because too many other kids were out of their seats, grabbing for yellow hall passes and throwing chalk.

  Mr. Moscowitz’s pimples became the target of our rebellion. We said he was ugly to his face; we grabbed books out of his hands; we flung spitballs at him. We egged each other on to further acts of daring. We crossed into the area of the forbidden. We were rude, obnoxious, violent. Our fervor came from our rage, not so much toward Mr. Moscowitz, though his flagrant acne was frightening to our eighth-grade sensibilities—it mirrored our own faces and our own fears—but toward the public school. Mr. Moscowitz was a chink in the tight school structure. We accepted hall passes, hall monitors, late passes, and school bells as part of the system, but give us a moment to break out and we did. Nancy Vogelsberger was the only one who stood up for Mr. Moscowitz. She wore a white Peter-Pan-collared blouse, a gray skirt, and sturdy shoes. Her brown hair had received a permanent so many times that it looked almost gray and frizzled flat out from the sides of her head. She shook her head and thought we were shameful. We called her the nun.

  The finale came when one young girl stood up in class and screamed with venom at him, “We hate you,” and the class cheered, “We hate you, we hate you.” He threw down Colette et ses frères (he, too, was a French teacher) and ran from the room sobbing, his right arm flung across his face. We all snickered. Ten minutes later the short stocky principal came into the room, told us to get in our seats, open our books, and shape up. We moved like bullets. He monitored the hall near our classroom doorway, and we were straight backed, sharp as pencils. The next day a tough substitute teacher came to replace Mr. Moscowitz and we conjugated to walk, to have, to go, to be until our young souls were lost in oblivion.

  The day Mr. Moscowitz ran out the door was in January. The branches were bare against the gray sky. It was a Long Island winter. Not too bad, not like Chicago or St. Paul. We never saw him again. Twenty-five years later I wonder what happened to him. Where had his life led him? I thank Nancy Vogelsberger for being his only angel. I want to write over and over, “Please forgive us, Mr. Moscowitz. We didn’t know what we did.” I am ashamed. What I experienced in that class taught me, too, but some lessons take a long time to comprehend.

  We are told in art classes that the negative space is important, too. We draw a tree. The blank space around the tree where nothing is drawn has its own integrity, just for the fact that it is there and allows the tree to be there. Mr. Sweeney was my tenth-grade world literature teacher. He acted as the blank space. He counterbalanced the alive energy of his students as they poured into the classroom at the sixth-period bell. He never budged from his big gray desk—pudgy face, black-rimmed eye-glasses, no smile, no frown. He was “placid,” a nice word for indifferent. We coexisted in the classroom. He left us alone; we left him alone. We had a list of thirty short stories to read: Katherine Anne Porter, Thomas Mann, James Joyce. We picked up our thick textbooks at a table by the door each day as we entered the classroom, and we read to ourselves. If we finished one story, we went on to the next.

  Oddly enough, we did not rebel in this class. There was nothing to rebel against. Mr. Sweeney put up no opposition. There were no discussions, no papers, no tests. This might sound modern, even avant-garde. It wasn’t. Mr. Sweeney was a completely lazy man. I don’t remember him reading at his desk, grading papers, or even ever looking at us. He just sat there for the entire semester, like a middle-aged manikin. Though the authors we read were good choices, our sixteen-year-old minds had trouble understanding those short stories without the help of a teacher. But it was nice for an hour in the school day just to be left alone and I remember that. Richard Brautigan wrote:

  My teachers could easily have ridden with Jesse James for all the time they stole from me.

  (from “The Memoirs of Jesse James,” in

  Rommel Drives on Deep Into Egypt, Delacorte Press, 1970)

  I am delighted whenever I think of that poem. I like the idea of Mr. Sweeney finally getting out from behind his desk, hitching up his gray wool trousers, throwing his leg over a wild pinto pony, and galloping off over the next hill after the next round of helpless students.

  Often I have asked friends, “Tell me about a teacher—any grade—who was important to you.” They are delighted by the question and then slowly as they think about it, it dawns on some of them, “Why, Natalie, I don’t think I ever had a great teacher, someone who really inspired me.” If they do think of one, their faces light up. It is a great gift to have a good teacher.

  I asked this question of my friend Kate. I can’t remember where we were—the New Riverside Café, C
afé Latte, someplace in Calhoun Square?—though I am certain that it was in the Twin Cities. I was visiting from New Mexico. Actually, the New French is a good guess, we go there for brunch whenever I’m in town. This question of a good teacher intrigued her. She paused and looked into space for a moment. Then she turned back to me. “You know, Nat, I had Anne Sexton and John Cheever at BU in graduate school. They weren’t great teachers in the usual sense; I mean, they didn’t teach much, but they were working writers. We had the experience of being with real working writers. Anne Sexton was wired. She would light a second cigarette even while one was in her mouth. At the beginning of the semester, she stood in front of the class and said, ‘Now don’t you graduate students try to impress me with all you know, I probably haven’t read any of it,’ and here she had won the Pulitzer Prize.” Kate paused. We both had big grins on our faces. “And Cheever. Students brought in their writing and we went over it. He hardly ever said a word. The students commented endlessly. We were all looking to him to say something. When we were done, he had a stock comment for each of us. For instance there was a Hawaiian woman from a Japanese background in the class. He’d say about her work, ‘Very inscrutable.’ I was a poet, so he’d say, ‘Very poetic’ We always complained among ourselves. ‘He should criticize us more.’ I remember once a student brought in a truly terrible story. We all were snoozing as he read it aloud. There was silence when he was finished. No one had anything to say. Then finally someone plunged in to start criticizing. Cheever just yelled, ‘No, stop!’ and held up his hand. ‘This is the most boring story I have ever heard in my entire life. We are not going to examine it.’ The student got defensive, ‘Well, it’s about the ennui of our society.’ ‘Yes,’ Cheever said, ‘the subject can be boredom, but the story can’t be boring!’ ”

  Later Kate said to me on the phone long distance—she was working on a new novel, The Summer of Men—“About Cheever, it’s fifteen years later and I’m getting something now that he said then. I don’t know if it makes sense but I was working on my book last week and it bloomed in me. He said, ‘Take three disparate objects, you know, like a window, a door, and a can opener, and put them together in a story.’ I suddenly really saw what he was talking about. Everyone wants a piece of a teacher, but you don’t get that piece till years later.”