Listen While I Play (Play, Play, Play)
– Terry Barr
funny how you hear about things you’ll never forget. In sixth grade, our
English teacher read
aloud to our class. It wasn’t like I didn’t eat pig meat before that, but
afterwards, I enjoyed barbecue pork sandwiches in a different way. I didn’t
hate the superior pigs or even believe they were insidious or untrustworthy
creatures. Still, they broke their own rules, were “dirty little commies,” and
betrayed the friendlier, more compliant horses, dogs, cows, and
chickens—animals I also loved.
teacher, Miss Miller, also told us about Orwell’s other novel.
The year was 1968.
After the telling, I’d think almost every day about what the world would be like
in sixteen years. If what was prophesied would come true. If “Big Brother”
would rule us and be watching us from the Arlington School play court, from my
own den, or from the washroom of the Bright Star restaurant, Bessemer’s favorite
place to dine.
Perhaps to deflate
what we didn’t know then was dystopian doublespeak, Miss Miller also let us
bring our favorite pop 45’s to play for each other on the classroom’s portable
phonograph that had previously sat in the left-hand back corner of the room as
if it were trying to hide from Orwell and everyone else. She played “Hey Jude
(Don’t Make It Bad),” her favorite song, and watched our reactions will
all-expectant joy. Robert Carnes brought in “Judy in Disguise (With Glasses),”
which I always got confused with “Lucy in the Sky (With Diamonds), a song Miss Miller
also loved. Karen Fenstermacher brought in two: “The Last Goodbye,” by local
WSGN-AM DJ Dave Roddy, and “Green Tambourine,” a psychedelic tune that none of
us could truly appreciate. I had no records then, and didn’t listen to the
radio to know all the popular songs. My pop/rock world was confined to daily TV
doses of “Where the Action Is” (where I first heard Sonny and Cher, Paul Revere
and the Raiders, and Steve Alaimo), and Saturday’s “American Bandstand,” where
I grew to love Dick Clark and wait patiently each week for him to reveal the
nation’s Number One song. I remember the Saturday it was “Snoopy vs. The Red Baron.”
Animal Farm indeed.
As if she were the
star of her own record, Miss Miller got married that spring and became Mrs.
Thames, and many of us went to her wedding. She was only 22 at the time, fresh
out of college. We, of course, were only eleven or twelve, depending on our
birthdays. It was a strange and wonderful thing seeing our teacher get married,
seeing her so happy.
Seeing that our
teacher was a real person and not just an authority looking to penalize us for
bad spelling, for talking to our desk mates, or for chewing gum.
She had a policy
on that, actually. Bring all the gum you want, chew it at your pleasure, but if
you get caught, you have to spit it out. For the first week or two, everyone
bought more gum than they would in a year and brought it all to class: Bazooka,
Dubble Bubble; some even brought whole packages of multi-colored gumballs. We’d
chew, get sugar rushes, and when Miss Miller would smilingly ask us to spit, we’d
do so with only the barest grins of shame.
Maybe two weeks
later, almost as if we decided as a class, no one brought gum any more. Such a
Miss Miller wasn’t
our first teacher that year, however. She started just after Christmas break
when our first teacher, the one who was supposed to be with us the entire
year—Miss Carson—resigned, or was forced to leave, or just couldn’t go on,
depending on the version you heard of her story. The version of her story I
heard came from the mouth of my own mother. I recently asked my mother if she
remembers telling me this story. She doesn’t, and when I reminded her of its
details, the details she told me, she said, “Hhmph, imagine that.”
I have imagined
it, and not too long ago, I contacted Mrs. Thames—now just “Beth” to me since
I’m 59 and she’s….” She didn’t know the circumstances of Miss Carson’s leaving
either, only that she herself was supposed to get a high school class that
year. Instead she got a mid-year sixth grade class. She got us.
I told her what I
thought happened, what I’d heard.
“That would be a
good story to write,” she said.
I never thought
about it much then, in elementary school, but it must have hurt to hear throngs
of kids screaming every day from 11:15-1:00 in the Arlington School lunchroom,
where the three teachers at a time couldn’t begin to herd 75 rambunctious,
would-be hellions unleashed. Naturally, we were supposed to be quiet everywhere
else: in class, in the music room, in the hallways as we traveled to and from
the other places we had to be. Not that we didn’t try and sometimes succeed in
talking without permission; after all, we weren’t angels. And yet, by the time
I entered Miss Carson’s third grade class, someone thought we should be. For my
first two plus years at Arlington, the lunchroom was the one place we could
“express ourselves,” through talking, through mixing our peas and “whipped
potatoes,” or through blowing into the straws stuck in our milk cartons so that
the milk bubbled up and overflowed over the carton.
Was it the
teachers who demanded silence and good conduct so that they would not have to
break up the seemingly constant shouting matches between Hollis Todd and Sandra
Roberts and so could eat their tomato aspics in peace? Was it our principal,
“Coach” Horace Peterson–who would one day graduate to principaling our high
school—who “suggested” that quiet time is godly time? Or was it the lunchroom
staff itself, led by Head Lunchroom Lady Mrs. Miller, who finally exacted
absolute silence; who agreed to watch over us undisguised?
The rule change
happened somewhere in the middle of that third grade fall. I had been home sick
for a week either with bronchitis or strep throat, my recurring ailments. Upon
my return, I found that at lunchtime, everyone had been assigned partners, four
to a table, instead of the loose and preferred arrangement of letting us sit
with our clique of friends. So while my friends, Keith Clark and Randy Ford,
were kept from blowing milk bubbles at other tables now, I found new mates:
David Baughn, a burly guy with extra-large pores, David Phillips (later Kirk
after his adoption went through), the fastest guy in third grade, and Steven
Wood, a curly redhead who stuttered badly and whose eyes bugged so largely that
he could have been the poster child for those children in Village of the Damned, a movie playing at Birmingham’s Ritz Theater
that I was not allowed to see.
It’s not that I
minded these guys. In fact, I wanted to talk to each of them at lunch. Except
during my absence, rules had been rewritten.
We were not
allowed to speak one word at lunch. If we did, our table would earn demerits
whose ultimate punishment I no longer remember, though it must have been to
earn the particular disfavor of all teachers, staff, and interested onlookers.
However, for the table of good boys and girls who remained absolutely quiet
during the entire 25-minte lunch, tabulated on a weekly basis, each tablemate
would get an angel pinned to his or her lapel to wear for the following week.
As I say, upon my
return, there I was with the two Davids and the Village of the Damned stand-in, each of them wearing angel pins.
I, of course, had
no pin. I hadn’t earned one.
That first day as
I leaned into one, tried to confer about that day’s football game at recess
with another, each of my new friends in turn put his finger to his lips to keep
me quiet; the second day, each shook his head at me. The third, each one
ordered me to “shush” at least twice. On the fourth day, our angel pins were
re-distributed to Laurie Guyton, Susan Watson, Mary Ann Headley, and Sandra
Our table never
got the angel pins again, but in some ways, that was the least of my troubles
in our lunchroom.
lady, Mrs. Miller, wore a white, starched uniform with white lace-up uniform
shoes, all of which complemented her silvery hair. When I first met her at her
perch by the register in the lunch line, she took to me mainly because she
lived next door to my best friend Robert. He introduced us, and her smile made
me feel pretty good. All that year, she’d encourage me to clean my plate, which
wasn’t hard when we had spaghetti or spoon burgers or vegetable soup. I even
poured ketchup all over my macaroni and cheese like everyone else did on the
days when it was our main course. But then came the days when we had navy beans,
again as our main course. Big white mushy looking beans, served with spinach or
some other green. I wouldn’t eat them. I couldn’t, and when I’d leave my plate,
Mrs. Miller would appear and make me feel small:
“Just put ketchup
on them like you do with the macaroni,” she’d say.
“Yes ma’am,” I’d
say, and do so, but I still wouldn’t eat them. We never had navy beans at home,
and even if we had, I wouldn’t have eaten them. My parents tried to get me to
eat other things I didn’t like the looks of: cauliflower, black-eyed peas,
sweet potatoes. They never won these battles, and Mrs. Miller didn’t win hers
either, though I saw my shame reflected in her eyes.
By third grade I
had convinced my mother that on navy bean days (which everyone marked on the
weekly mimeographed lunch calendars distributed to classrooms each Monday), I
needed to bring my lunch. So she’d dutifully pack my ham sandwich, golden
apple, and Fritos. I’d still buy a half-pint of Sealtest chocolate milk at
school (always chocolate because we all thought the white milk tasted sour), for
a nickel. I don’t know the other kids’ experiences of walking through the
cafeteria line with a sack lunch, or a “James Bond” lunchbox like Rodney
Rockett had, but when I went to pay my nickel, Mrs. Miller would look at my
brown sack, and her eyes would rival Steven Wood’s.
matter? Why aren’t you eating with us today?”
Her shaming look
pierced me even more deeply now. Not enough, of course, to try navy beans, if
that’s what this admonishment was all about anyway.
I think Miss Carson
felt bad for me. In many ways, I was her favorite. My spelling, my
multiplication, my overall brightness caused her to intercede in the lunchroom.
Occasionally, she invited me to invite my mother to lunch and sit with her. Only
on these occasions could we, and we alone, talk. I don’t know how Mrs. Miller
felt about that, about our talking, about Miss Carson’s intercession. About
Miss Carson herself, but then that’s something else I never wondered about back
then, in elementary school.
In a world where I
assumed the adults who governed me all knew how to play well together.
Despite Miss Carson’s
favoritism toward me, there was no way I should have won the third grade “Good
Citizenship” award. My good points barely outweighed my bad, as evidenced on the
board she kept on the wall to the left of her desk. I’d get bad marks for being
out of my seat, for excessive talking, and for my pretty bad absence record. On
the other hand, though his grades didn’t match mine, Reggie Bowen had a
sterling conduct record. He was mainly quiet, except on the playground where he
dominated all sports because he was fast and could wallop a baseball, and he
listened well to Miss Carson’s instructions on the perfect cursive style of
writing. As I watched the board all year, I’d see my bad marks erased by good
ones, and those good ones marred by the latest bad.
however, were always good, and even, and usually one or two paces ahead of
mine. Yet on the last day of class, there were Susan Watson, her parents, my
parents, and me, standing in the back of the classroom as Miss Carson brought
out the little gold cups with our good citizen names engraved on them.
Reggie got second
place, and I remember him sort of sidling around everyone else, head hanging
“I felt sorry for
that other boy,” my dad said.
He should have,
for Reggie should have won. My good conduct marks might have reached his at the
end, but anyone could look at that board and see that compared to his marks,
mine were a mess—a mess Miss Carson didn’t even bother cleaning up before
announcing the winning good citizen.
Why wasn’t Reggie
her favorite? The nature of “favorites” means that we might not ever know why
we’re picked and someone else isn’t. But we know when we are. I think Miss Carson
was pulling for me all year long, manipulating my bad marks to good, maybe because
my good grades showed how hard I tried, how bright I was. Maybe because my crew
cut and slightly overweight body touched her somewhere. Maybe because I was a
boy who wanted to be liked.
Or, maybe because
I wasn’t always compliant, wasn’t always the best behaved. I could behave; it’s
just that I didn’t always want to, though I wanted, always, for Miss Carson to
like me, to notice me.
We all wanted to
be noticed by Miss Carson who was so young, so beautiful, so engaging, with her
deep red hair, her gorgeous smile, her model-slim stature, and even the bluish
mole on her right cheek, just to the side of her nose.
“We never had
teachers who looked like that when I was in school,” my dad offered.
As if it weren’t
lucky enough to have her for one year, when I entered sixth grade, I got
luckier. The school had decided to prepare us for junior high by splitting our
day between two teachers—one who would teach math and science, the other who
would teach language, social studies, and writing. And there, standing in the
back classroom of the third floor on that first day of sixth grade, as my
homeroom and language teacher, was Miss Carson.
There also was my best
friend Randy Manzella, whose grades, accommodating nature, and profoundly
involved PTA mother, contributed to his becoming Miss Carson’s favorite for that
year. Or rather, that half-year.
As I said, when
you’re in elementary school, you don’t think much about your teacher’s life
outside. It was hard for me to picture that my teachers actually lived in houses
separate from the school, though of course I knew they did. My first grade
teacher, Mrs. Baird, was married to our veterinarian, so I knew some personal things.
Like most kids, I referred to each of my teachers as “Miss,” pronounced “Miz,”
before that became a sign of liberation. Many of these teachers were married,
or widowed, or, like my second grade teacher, Miss Mittis Pearson, confirmed
spinsters. Miss Carson was none of these.
None of us knew
where she lived, the things she did after we were dismissed at 3:00 every day.
Of course most of us never imagined these things either: the life of a
schoolteacher, of a young, working woman.
must have been watching, worrying, taking into account that young female
teachers have lives and very certain affairs. Are often in disguise.
In early November
of that sixth grade year, we started getting substitutes for Miss Carson:
ancient ladies who sort-of babysat or attempted to correct our hormonally
heathenish ways. Women like Miss Sturdivant who never understood why The
Beatles were big or why we might care more about them than when to use “shall”
instead of “will.”
would come and go for a day or two and then Miss Carson would return. She’d
seem the same except for two things: her usual good temper cut itself short at everyone
including me, and sometimes even Randy Manzella. Both of us, after all, were
And then she quit
smiling, at least at most things.
I no longer
remember what we were supposed to be learning during these weeks before the
holidays, and I’m not saying that it was due to Miss Carson that we might not
have learned anything worth remembering at all during the first half of sixth
What I am saying
is that even to an eleven-year old boy, our teacher seemed distracted, distraught,
though I didn’t know that word then much less the emotions it triggered.
came and went. But as we sat in our classroom that first day back, Miss Carson
didn’t arrive to greet us.
Miss Miller did.
Or perhaps Miss
Carson did return to introduce Miss Miller to us. It hardly matters now,
because the result was that our teacher was leaving us, abandoning us, and we
didn’t know why, where she was going, what she would do, or whether this was
against her will or not. There are so many ways that a kid can fail, but having
your teacher leave so abruptly and not having any explanation why left some of
us feeling like we were to blame.
Rules are written
and re-written. Often, those writing or conceiving the rules don’t imagine that
those who must follow these rules might just be capable of understanding the
reasoning behind the rules—that they might have agreed with or accepted these
rules more readily if they understood them. So the rule-writers, in their arrogant
way, simply erase or paint over what is there and so often expect us to go on
with our lives as if we can’t see the old paint shining through; as if we can’t
tell that though almost faded away, the past is never actually gone.
That’s what it
felt like at first to see Miss Miller standing at Miss Carson’s desk, with no
explanation for this change. We knew it wasn’t her fault. It’s funny now to think that any school kid could ever
miss his teacher. But I did.
Soon we all
softened under Miss Miller’s smile, her softer voice, and in my case, her
encouragement and belief that my poor cursive scratchings could improve, could
become legible–a belief, I’m sad to say, Miss Carson never had in me.
“That’s so much
better, Terry,” Miss Miller would say, and in those moments I felt something
familiar, something almost new. I felt like a pet again.
When Miss Miller
got married in Bessemer’s First Presbyterian Church that March, our entire
class was invited. She hugged us all in the reception line, and to each one of
us as we passed she said, “Hi____, I want to introduce you to my husband Walter.”
We felt so large then, so included in this new set of rules.
Several boys in
class edited our class newspaper, and for their lead story that week, they
headlined, “New Teacher Gets Married.” The story came complete with a drawing
of the new “Mrs. Thames” on the front page that they hand-copied from the one
in The Bessemer News that week. These
were the days of blue mimeograph ink, the kind that would get a kid semi-high
when it was freshly smelled.
The kind that
doesn’t copy hand-drawn sixth grade pictures very well.
Still, Miss Miller
passed into Mrs. Thames seamlessly, and we learned to call her by her new name,
to listen to her stories, both real and fictional. We loved her as our own, and
by that May, we had nearly forgotten our other teacher, Miss Myra Carson.
Some people can
never be forgotten, though, regardless of whether you know what happened to
them or not. I would have never forgotten Miss Carson anyway, even had I not learned
this part of her story.
It was ten or even
fifteen years later. My mother had become a decorator for a local carpet and
drapery store, and I was home visiting from grad school.
“You won’t believe
who came into the store today,” she said over supper that night.
I didn’t have time
to make futile stabs at guessing names no longer fresh in my usually good
memory. My mother never gives much time for guesswork anyway.
“Your old third
grade teacher, Miss Carson!”
“She’s a sales rep
now for a big line of carpets. She still looks the same, you know, red-headed,
I knew. I
remembered her so vividly, and periodically during those intervening years, I
wondered what happened to her, why she left us.
“It was too bad
what happened to her,” I heard my mother say as I was reflecting on what seemed
like a recent past.
“What do you mean,
‘too bad,’ and what did happen to
“Oh, she had some
kind of breakdown. She had been going with this guy and they said she was in
love with him, but he left her or something like that.”
I thought for a
minute about a man who would leave Miss Carson. How stupid must you be to walk
out on a woman who’s both beautiful and smart? I was in my mid-twenties at this
time. I still knew so little about relationships, or about the watchful eyes of
small-town gossip either.
“Yep, they say she
just couldn’t face coming back to Arlington because it reminded her too much of
The only men at
Arlington that I could think of were Mr. Peterson, and Coach Douglas who left
after I was in second grade. Oh, and Frank, the custodian.
“What man are we
talking about, Mom?”
“Oh, no one you
know, but you remember Mrs. Miller, the lunch lady? Well, it was her son that
Miss Carson loved.”
I thought then
about our lunchroom, about angels and all that noise. I thought about the day
my mother and I and Steven Wood and Miss Carson sat at one of the central
tables having lunch together. How my mother ate only rolls that day, saying
that she had another lunch to go to afterward. About how Miss Carson made us
all feel at ease, made me feel like I was special.
Of course I
couldn’t see and never wondered then what she was seeing as she gazed across
the room at Mrs. Miller. Maybe it was all still to come for her: meeting this
son, falling so in love. Teachers got special lunches sometimes and so weren’t
always expected to eat our supposedly balanced meals.
Our navy beans.
It seems, too,
that they weren’t expected to lose their hearts and equilibriums either to
certain forbidden sons. That was a rule that no one saw.
Across all the
years and spaces of radios playing forgotten songs; in reflections of the music
that is or isn’t or has always been mine; in listening to teachers reading
dangerous visions of pigs and diamond skies, I think now about Mrs. Miller and the
consequences of a time when she watched us all so closely. How quickly she turned
on us if we didn’t eat our beans, if we left food of any sort on our plates, if
we brought our lunch in a brown paper bag.
Or–and of course
I won’t ever know whether this is true or not–if a young woman fell in love
with her son and refused to let him go.
Terry Barr’s essay collection, Don’t Date Baptists and Other Warnings
From My Alabama Mother, is published by Red Dirt Press. His work has
also appeared in South Writ Large, Under the Sun, The Bitter Southerner,
Hippocampus, and 3288 Review. He lives in Greenville, SC, with his