Richard Yates, "Fun with a Stranger"
All that summer the children who were due to start third grade under Miss Snell had been warned about her. "Boy, you’re gonna get it," the older children would say, distorting their faces with a wicked pleasure. "You’re really gonna get it. Mrs. Cleary‘s all right" (Mrs. Cleary taught the other, luckier half of third grade) "—she‘s fine, but boy, that Snell—you better watch out." So it happened that the morale of Miss Snell’s class was low even before school opened in September, and she did little in the first few weeks to improve it.
She was probably sixty, a big rawboned woman with a man’s face, and her clothes, if not her very pores, seemed always to exude that dry essence of pencil shavings and chalk dust that is the smell of school. She was strict and humorless, preoccupied with rooting out the things she held intolerable: mumbling, slumping, daydreaming, frequent trips to the bathroom, and, the worst of all, "coming to school without proper supplies." Her small eyes were sharp, and when somebody sent out a stealthy alarm of whispers and nudges to try to borrow a pencil from somebody else, it almost never worked. "What’s the trouble back there?" she would demand. "I mean you, John Gerhardt." And John Gerhardt—or Howard White or whoever it happened to be—caught in the middle of a whisper, could only turn red and say, "Nothing."
"Don’t mumble. Is it a pencil? Have you come to school without a pencil again? Stand up when you’re spoken to."
And there would follow a long lecture on Proper Supplies that ended only after the offender had come forward to receive a pencil from the small hoard on her desk, had been made to say, "Thank you, Miss Snell," and to repeat, until he said it loud enough for everyone to hear, a promise that he wouldn‘t chew it or break its point.
With erasers it was even worse because they were more often in short supply, owing to a general tendency to chew them off the ends of pencils. Miss Snell kept a big, shapeless old eraser on her desk, and she seemed very proud of it. "This is my eraser," she would say, shaking it at the class. "I‘ve had this eraser for five years. Five years." (And this was not hard to believe, for the eraser looked as old and gray and worn-down as the hand that brandished it.) "I’ve never played with it because it‘s not a toy. I‘ve never chewed it because it’s not good to eat. And I‘ve never lost it because I‘m not foolish and I‘m not careless. I need this eraser for my work and I’ve taken good care of it. Now, why can‘t you do the same with your erasers? I don’t know what‘s the matter with this class. I’ve never had a class that was so foolish and so careless and so childish about its supplies."
She never seemed to lose her temper, but it would almost have been better if she did, for it was the flat, dry, passionless redundance of her scolding that got everybody down. When Miss Snell singled someone out for a special upbraiding it was an ordeal by talk. She would come up to within a foot of her victim‘s face, her eyes would stare unblinking into his, and the wrinkled gray flesh of her mouth would labor to pronounce his guilt, grimly and deliberately, until all the color faded from the day. She seemed tohave no favorites; once she even picked on Alice Johnson, who always had plenty of supplies and did nearly everything right. Alice was mumbling while reading aloud, and when she continued to mumble after several warnings Miss Snell went over and took her book away and lectured her for several minutes running. Alice looked stunned at first; then her eyes filled up, her mouth twitched into terrible shapes, and she gave in to the ultimate humiliation of crying in class.
It was not uncommon to cry in Miss Snell’s class, even among the boys. And ironically, it always seemed to be during the lull after one of these scenes—when the only sound in the room was somebody’s slow, half-stifled sobbing, and the rest of the class stared straight ahead in an agony of embarrassment that the noise of group laughter would float in from Mrs. Cleary’s class across the hall.
Still, they could not hate Miss Snell, for children’s villains must be all black, and there was no denying that Miss Snell was sometimes nice in an awkward, groping way of her own. "When we learn a new word it’s like making a friend," she said once. "And we all like to make friends, don‘t we? Now, for instance, when school began this year you were all strangers to me, but I wanted very much to learn your names and remember your faces, and so I made the effort. It was confusing at first, but before long I’d made friends with all of you. And later on we‘ll have some good times together—oh, perhaps a little party at Christmastime, or something like that—and then I know I’d be very sorry if I hadn‘t made that effort, because you can’t very well have fun with a stranger, can you?" She gave them a comely, shy smile. "And that’s just the way it is with words."
When she said something like that it was more embarrassing than anything else, but it did leave the children with a certain vague sense of responsibility toward her, and often prompted them into a loyal reticence when children from other classes demanded to know how bad she really was. "Well, not too bad," they would say uncomfortably, and try to change the subject.
John Gerhardt and Howard White usually walked home from school together, and often as not, though they tried to avoid it, they were joined by two of the children from Mrs. Cleary’s class who lived on their street—Freddy Taylor and his twin sister Grace. John and Howard usually got about as far as the end of the playground before the twins came running after them out of the crowd. "Hey, wait up!" Freddy would call. "Wait up!" And in a moment the twins would fall into step beside them, chattering, swinging their identical plaid canvas school bags.
"Guess what we’re gonna do next week," Freddy said in his chirping voice one afternoon. "Our whole class, I mean. Guess. Come on, guess."
John Gerhardt had already made it plain to the twins once, in so many words, that he didn’t like walking home with a girl, and now he very nearly said something to the effect that one girl was bad enough, but two were more than he could take. Instead he aimed a knowing glance at Howard White and they both walked on in silence, determined not to answer Freddy’s insistent "Guess."
But Freddy didn’t wait long for an answer. "We’re gonna take a field trip," he said, "for our class in Transportation. We’re gonna go to Harmon. You know what Harmon is?"
"Sure," Howard White said. "A town."
"No, but I mean, you know what they do there? What they do is, that’s where they change all the trains coming into New York from steam locomotives to electric power. Mrs. Cleary says we’re gonna watch ’em changing the locomotives and everything."
"We’re gonna spend practically the whole day," Grace said.
"So what’s so great about that?" Howard White asked. "I can go there any day, if I feel like it, on my bike." This was an exaggeration—he wasn’t allowed out of a two-block radius on his bike—but it sounded good, especially when he added. "I don’t need any Mrs. Cleary to take me," with a mincing, sissy emphasis on the "Cleary."
"On a school day?" Grace inquired. "Can you go on a school day?"
Lamely Howard murmured, "Sure, if I feel like it," but it was a clear point for the twins.
"Mrs. Cleary says we’re gonna take a lotta field trips," Freddy said. "Later on, we’re gonna go to the Museum of Natural Hisory, in New York, and a whole lotta other places. Too bad you’re not in Mrs. Cleary’s class."
"Doesn’t bother me any," John Gerhardt said. Then he came up with a direct quotation from his father that seemed appropriate: "Anyway, I don’t go to school to fool around. I go to school to work. Come on, Howard.’
A day or two later it turned out that both classes were scheduled to take the field trip together; Miss Snell had just neglected to tell her pupils about it. When she did tell them it was in one of her nice moods. "I think the trip will be especially valuable," she said, "because it will be instructive and at the same time it will be a real treat for all of us." That afternoon John Gerhardt and Howard White conveyed the news to the twins with studied carelessness and secret delight.
But the victory was short-lived, for the field trip itself only emphasized the difference between the two teachers. Mrs. Cleary ran everything with charm and enthusiasm; she was young and lithe and just about the prettiest woman Miss Snell’s class had ever seen. It was she who arranged for the children to climb up and inspect the cab of a huge locomotive that stood idle on a siding, and she who found out where the public toilets were. The most tedious facts about trains came alive when she explained them; the most forbidding engineers and switchmen became jovial hosts when she smiled up at them, with her long hair blowing and her hands plunged jauntily in the pockets of her polo coat.
Through it all Miss Snell hung in the background, gaunt and sour, her shoulders hunched against the wind and her squinted eyes roving, alert for stragglers. At one point she made Mrs. Cleary wait while she called her own class aside and announced that there would be no more field trips if they couldn’t learn to stay together in a group. She spoiled everything, and by the time it was over the class was painfully embarrassed for her. She’d had every chance to give a good account of herself that day, and now her failure wasas pitiful as it was disappointing. That was the worst part of it: she was pitiful- they didn’t even want to look at her, in her sad, lumpy black coat and hat. All they wanted was to get her into the bus and back to school and out of sight as fast as possible.
The events of autumn each brought a special season to the school. First came Halloween, for which several art classes were devoted to crayoned jack-o’-lanterns and arching black cats. Thanksgiving was bigger; for a week or two the children painted turkeys and horns of plenty and brown-clad Pilgrim Fathers with high buckled hats and trumpet-barreled muskets, and in music class they sang "We Gather Together" and "America the Beautiful" again and again. And almost as soon as Thanksgiving was over the long preparations for Christmas began: red and green predominated, and carols were rehearsed for the annual Christmas Pageant. Every day the halls became more thickly festooned with Christmas trimmings, until finally it was the last week before vacation.
"You gonna have a party in your class?" Freddy Taylor inquired one day.
"Sure, prob’ly," John Gerhardt said, though in fact he wasn’t sure at all. Except for that one vague reference, many weeks before, Miss Snell had said or hinted nothing whatever about a Christmas party.
"Miss Snell tell ya you’re gonna have one, or what?" Grace asked.
"Well, she didn’t exactly tell us," John Gerhardt said obscurely. Howard White walked along without a word, scuffing his shoes.
"Mrs. Cleary didn’t tell us, either," Grace said, "because it’s supposed to be a surprise, but we know we’re gonna have one. Some of the kids who had her last year said so. They said she always has this big party on the last day, with a tree and everything, and favors and things to eat. You gonna have all that?"
"Oh, I don’t know," John Gerhardt said. "Sure, prob’ly. " But later, when the twins were gone, he got a little worried. "Hey, Howard," he said, "you think she is gonna have a party, or what?"
"Search me," Howard White said, with a careful shrug. "I didn’t say anything." But he was uneasy about it too, and so was the rest of the class. As vacation drew nearer, and particularly during the few anticlimactic days of school left after the Christmas Pageant was over, it seemed less and less likely that Miss Snell was planning a party of any kind, and it preyed on all their minds.
It rained on the last day of school. The morning went by like any other morning, and after lunch, like any other rainy day, the corridors were packed with chattering children in raincoats and rubbers, milling around and waiting for the afternoon classes to begin. Around the third-grade classrooms there was a special tension, for Mrs. Cleary had locked the door of her room, and the word soon spread that she was alone inside making preparations for a party that would begin when the bell rang and last all afternoon. "I peeked," Grace Taylor was saying breathlessly to anyone who would listen. "She’s got this little tree with all blue lights, and she’s got the room all fixed up and all the desks moved away and everything.
Others from her class tagged after her with questions—"What‘d you see?" "All blue lights?"—and still others jostled around the door, trying to get a look through the keyhole.
Miss Snell’s class pressed self-consciously against the corridor wall, mostly silent, hands in their pockets. Their door was closed too, but nobody wanted to see if it was locked for fear it might swing open and reveal Miss Snell sitting sensibly at her desk, correcting papers. Instead they watched Mrs. Cleary’s door, and when it opened at last they watched the other children flock in. All the girls yelled, "Oohl" in chorus as they disappeared inside, and even from where Miss Snell’s class stood they could see that the room was transformed. There was a tree with blue lights—the whole room glowed blue, in fact—and the floor was cleared. They could just see the corner of a table in the middle, bearing platters of bright candy and cake. Mrs. Cleary stood in the doorway, beautiful and beaming, slightly flushed with welcome. She gave a kindly, distracted smile to the craning faces of Miss Snell’s class, then closed the door again.
A second later Miss Snell’s door opened, and the first thing they saw was that the room was unchanged. The desks were all in place, ready for work; their own workaday Christmas paintings still spotted the walls, and there was no other decoration except for the grubby red cardboard letters spelling "Merry Christmas" that had hung over the blackboard all week. But then with a rush of relief they saw that on Miss Snell’s desk lay a neat little pile of red-and-white-wrapped packages. Miss Snell stood unsmiling at the head of the room, waiting for the class to get settled. Instinctively, nobody lingered to stare at the gifts or to comment on them. Miss Snell’s attitude made it plain that the party hadn’t begun yet.
It was time for spelling, and she instructed them to get their pencils and paper ready. In the silences between her enunciation of each word to be spelled, the noise of Mrs. Cleary’s class could be heard—repeated laughter and whoops of surprise. But the little pile of gifts made everything all right; the children had only to look at them to know that there was nothing to be embarrassed about, after all. Miss Snell had come through.
The gifts were all wrapped alike, in white tissue paper with red ribbon, and the few whose individual shapes John Gerhardt could discern looked like they might be jackknives. Maybe it would be jackknives for the boys, he thought, and little pocket flashlights for the girls. Or more likely, since jackknives were probably too expensive, it would be something well-meant and useless from the dime store, like individual lead soldiers for the boys and miniature dolls for the girls. But even that would be good enough – something hard and bright to prove that she was human after all, to pull out of a pocket and casually display to the Taylor twins. ("Well, no, not a party, exactly, but she gave us all these little presents. Look.")
"John Gerhardt," Miss Snell said, "if you can’t give your attention to anything but the . . . things on my desk, perhaps I’d better put them out of sight." The class giggled a little, and she smiled. It was only a small, shy smile, quickly corrected before she turned back to her spelling book, but it was enough to break the tension. While the spelling papers were being collected Howard White leaned close to John Gerhardt and whispered, "Tie clips. Bet it’s tie clips for the boys and some kinda jewelry for the girls."
"Sh-shl" John told him, but then he added, "Too thick for tie clips." There was a general shifting around; everyone expected the party to begin as soon as Miss Snell had all the spelling papers. Instead she called for silence and began the afternoon class in Transportation.
The afternoon wore on. Every time Miss Snell glanced at the clock they expected her to say, "Oh, my goodness—I’d almost forgotten." But she didn’t. It was a little after two, with less than an hour of school left, when Miss Snell was interrupted by a knock on the door. "Yes?" she said irritably. "What is it?"
Little Grace Taylor came in, with half a cupcake in her hand and the other half in her mouth. She displayed elaborate surprise at finding the class at work—backing up a step and putting her free hand to her lips.
"Well?" Miss Snell demanded. "Do you want something?"
"Mrs. Cleary wants to know if—"
"Must you talk with your mouth full?"
Grace swallowed. She wasn’t the least bit shy. "Mrs. Cleary wants to know if you have any extra paper plates."
"I have no paper plates," Miss Snell said. "And will you kindly inform Mrs. Cleary that this class is in session?"
"All right," Grace took another bite of her cake and turned to leave. Her eyes caught the pile of gifts and she paused to look at them, clearly unimpressed.
"You’re holding up the class," Miss Snell said. Grace moved on. At the door she gave the class a sly glance and a quick, silent giggle full of cake crumbs, and then slipped out..
The minute hand crept down to two-thirty, passed it, and inched toward two-forty-five. Finally, at five minutes of three, Miss Snell laid down her book. "All right," she said, "I think we may all put our books away now. This is the last day of school before the holidays, and I’ve prepared a little surprise for you." She smiled again. "Now, I think it would be best if you all stay in your places, and I’ll just pass these around. Alice Johnson, will you please come and help me? The rest of you stay seated." Alice went forward, and Miss Snell divided the little packages into two heaps, using two pieces of drawing paper as trays. Alice took one paperful, cradling it carefully, and Miss Snell the other. Before they started around the room Miss Snell said, "Now, I think the most courteous thing would be for each of you to wait until everyone is served, and then we’ll all open the packages together. All right, Alice."
They started down the aisle, reading the labels and passing out the gifts. The labels were the familiar Woolworth kind with a picture of Santa Claus and "Merry Christmas" printed on them, and Miss Snell had filled them out in her neat blackboard lettering. John Gerhardt’s read: "To John G., From Miss Snell." He picked it up, but the moment he felt the package he knew, with a little shock, exactly what it was. There was no surprise left bythe time Miss Snell returned to the head of the class and said, "All right."
He peeled off the paper and laid the gift on his desk. It was an eraser, the serviceable ten-cent kind, half white for pencil and half gray for ink. From the corner of his eye he saw that Howard White, beside him, was unwrapping an identical one, and a furtive glance around the room confirmed that all the gifts had been the same. Nobody knew what to do, and for what seemed a full minute the room was silent except for the dwindling rustle of tissue paper. Miss Snell stood at the head of the class, her clasped fingers writhing like dry worms at her waist, her face melted into the soft, tremulous smile of a giver. She looked completely helpless.
At last one of the girls said, "Thank you, Miss Snell," and then the rest of the class said it in ragged unison: "Thank you, Miss Snell."
"You’re all very welcome," she said, composing herself, "and I hope you all have a pleasant holiday."
Mercifully, the bell rang then, and in the jostling clamor of retreat to the cloakroom it was no longer necessary to look at Miss Snell. Her voice rose above the noise: "Will you all please dispose of your paper and ribbons in the basket before you leave?"
John Gerhardt yanked on his rubbers, grabbed his raincoat, and elbowed his way out of the cloakroom, out of the classroom and down the noisy corridor. "Hey, Howard, wait up!" he yelled to Howard White, and finally both of them were free of school, running, splashing through puddles on the playground. Miss Snell was left behind now, farther behind with every step; if they ran fast enough they could even avoid the Taylor twins, and then there would be no need to think about any of it any more. Legs pounding, raincoats streaming, they ran with the exhilaration of escape.
—from Eleven Kinds of Loneliness (1962)
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