This is the third draft of Chapter Nineteen. I might well come back to it later, but for now I am moving on–from the chapter, you understand. The Old Boyfriend and I moved on half a century ago.
The Ford and the Teacher
“I knew that I . . . came across as a school mistress.”
During the years of her marriage to Martin, Camilla thought often and fondly of her grandfather with his church that was packed every Sunday and his house full of books overflowing the shelves that had been built for them. Someone, probably the housekeeper, occasionally tried to put the extra books into tidy piles just in front of the shelves, but her grandfather had a cat who considered those stacks of books his personal challenge, and so the effort was abandoned. That clutter of books was always a comfort to Camilla. When her grandfather died, she had wanted badly to have the cat, who was white and handsome, but she was busy with the baby and, by the time she mentioned it to her parents, the cat was gone. His name was Icarus, and he had sat in her lap for whole afternoons while she read or talked to her grandfather about books. It was her grandfather who had introduced her to reading and then had seen to it that she always had something to read. He died a year after Bill was born. She didn’t think of him with any sort of regret nor did she make pointless comparisons between the old pastor and her Martin. Still, she did think of him.
It must have been partly the memory of her grandfather that inspired her, one morning a few months after her mother’s death, to look into what would be required for her to become a schoolteacher. Looking back on it, she was ashamed to admit that she had not given a passing thought to Martin or to the obvious need to talk with him about a decision that could change both their lives. Normally careful of Martin’s feelings, she hadn’t considered at all what this would seem like from his perspective. Of course, it would have appeared that she wanted to find a way back to the world she had inhabited before her marriage. She would have adamantly denied it at the time, but wouldn’t that have been at least part of what she wanted? If she had considered telling him, if she had let it even slip through her mind, she would have seen what was obvious–that the whole idea would be hurtful and an insult. No, Camilla dared not let her mind turn in her husband’s direction for fear she would comprehend all too well that by doing this she was saying—without the bother of actually saying it—that she was dissatisfied with her life and that she wanted more of somethingthat Martin wasn’t quite providing: more books; more people who wanted to talk about them; a little more money; some unnamed quality in the marriage. Whatever it was, she had sat down at her kitchen table with a tablet and a pencil and, with no worries about Martin weighing her down, had tried to decide where to begin.
As she considered her options, she saw how completely she had cut her ties to the old life. She had lost touch with Dora and Mrs. Randolph, the two people who defined that life and its promises–promises that had been well within reach. At this point, two things occurred, one on top of the other and without Camilla’s having to stir from the table. First, she discovered that she was sitting with her hands in tight fists in her lap. She didn’t know how long she had sat that way, but she took a deep breath and relaxed her hands so her palms were loose and open. Those fists suggested anger, of course. Camilla understood that, but she wasn’t prepared to think any further than that general acknowledgment. It was a coincidence, probably the purely physical response of sitting in the hard chair, bent over the table and more than a little anxious that she wouldn’t be able to find out what she needed. Whatever was causing those fists, Camilla was sure of one thing. It wasn’t anger. She was not angry. She was not angry about anything she might have lost, certainly not. She couldn’t be angry with Martin, who had done nothing more than love her, and obviously she wasn’t angry with her child. She couldn’t even imagine being angry with Bill. She wasn’t angry at all, and that was that. Because, somewhere down very deep, Camilla knew that anger was her dragon, just as pain was Martin’s. And, while Martin had defeated his dragon with her help and Delia’s, there would be no one to help her and she, and her life, would not have survived. And so, Camilla wasn’t angry. Whatever happened had simply happened. There was no one to blame.
She had stopped going to the small schoolhouse when she was married, and pregnancy, then a baby, barred her altogether. The years had passed with a terrible speed, and once she and Martin had moved, Camilla’s attention had turned to what was in front of her. Martin had found a piece of land he liked and could afford, and Camilla was caught up in the endless job of setting up housekeeping and raising her son. And now it was obvious that Mrs. Randolph was the person who would know how one might go about becoming a teacher, and Camilla was sure she would also know where Dora was. She felt a rush of excitement. And in the few minutes required for all this to pour through the filters Camilla had set around her awareness on certain subjects, the second thing happened and cut right through her mostly unconscious decision to carry out her plan without consulting Martin.
He came in so quietly, closed the door so soundlessly, that Camilla didn’t know Martin was there until he pulled out a chair and sat down across the table. She was startled and, irrationally, she felt guilty. She had written nothing on her tablet except the two names—Mrs. R. and Dora—but she moved too quickly to put her hand over them and Martin was curious. “If that’s the start of a list for shopping, Mill, I am going to town in a while and I can pick up anything we need.”
“Thank you, but I think we have plenty of everything. Most likely we won’t have to bring in any groceries from town for at least another week.“ And then, by some instinct, Camilla had the good sense not to try to hide what she was doing. “I wasn’t making a shopping list. I was scribbling down my ideas for finding out if I could ever go to school, or do anything else, to become a teacher.”
She laughed when she said, “So far I have written down two names: Mrs. Randolph—who was my English teacher—and Eudora Marker, a girl I was just starting to like. I think we were becoming friends.”
Martin was looking at her curiously, so she added, “And that’s as far as I got. I guess it should have been obvious that my old teacher might know something about how to become a teacher.” When Martin didn’t respond, she went on, “I was thinking I might drive over there tomorrow early, leave Bill with my parents, and just take a run by the school. What do you think, Martin? Would you be able to do without the car?”
Camilla never did unravel the mystery of Martin’s face at that moment, but chances are she tried. Whatever was going through his mind, whatever he was feeling, what Martin said was, “Of course I can do without the car, and you must leave Bill here with me. You’ll spend a lot of time with Megan and William when you probably want to use it all at the school. It’s a pretty exciting idea, Mil, and I’ll do anything I can to help you with whatever you need to do.”
Camilla had no response to this short speech. What with one thing and another, there was an awful lot of silence in that conversation. Camilla was genuinely amazed, not so much by what Martin had said as by her own apparent blindness to the depth of simple goodness in this man. It was just his nature. It was who he was. It wasn’t what he thought he should say or any kind of posture or performance. It was just Martin. If it were brought to his attention, he would have shrugged and been slightly confused that anyone would make a fuss about it. As far as Martin was concerned, it was just the way you acted. Camilla hadn’t said a word yet, but he was watching her and he could sense she was about to tell him how wonderful he was. He really felt that he wouldn’t be able to tolerate it, so he cut right in before she had an opening,
“Alright, then, I am going to town to do the few things on my own list, then you can have the car as early tomorrow as you want to start, and with Bill staying here, you won’t have to eat up your time getting him ready to travel. And you’re sure you don’t want to add to the list?”
“I’m sure, Martin. Thank you for tomorrow. Bill staying here will make my day easier and possibly shorter. So you think I’m on the right track to consult Mrs. Randolph first?”
“Yes, I do. It sounds like she’s so obvious to ask you could throw any other names that come to you right out the window.”
Camilla didn’t have the heart to tell Martin there were no other names, and early the next morning she left him and Bill sleeping soundly, tip-toed out to the car and headed down the road in search of her future. As she drove, it occurred to her that she wasn’t even sure that Mrs. R was still there. She was appalled that she had allowed two people who had been so important to just disappear. Mrs. Randolph’s encouragement, and the confidence she had in Camilla, had been life-changing, and perhaps even more was the friendship with Eudora, her only relationship like that either before or since. Before, she had her parents and her grandfather. After, there was Martin and then there was Bill. There was no time for friends. Mrs. Randolph had seen the need and made the arrangements for them. Goodness, she could hardly wait to find Mrs. R and then to track down Dora. How exciting. Life certainly did have its twists and turns and most of them recently had been because of this automobile. Without it, she would have had no way to even make the trip.
As usual, Camilla was distracted while she was driving and very nearly ran herself into a ditch. She turned the wheel just ahead of disaster and tried to keep her attention on the road for the rest of the short drive. It wasn’t long, however, until she nearly wrecked the car a second time. When she drove up to the schoolhouse, to what used to be a one-room frame building accommodating twenty or twenty-five children, she slammed on the brakes and almost threw herself over the steering wheel. Was it actually possible that in seven years, it had been transformed into a large brick building, with two floors? And more than that, could it be true that for those same seven years, as she came to see her parents, she had never once driven past the school, never seen what was happening, never even tried to visit Mrs. Randolph or ask where Dora had gone?
Much more cautiously, she pulled the Ford into a vacant parking place—they were actually marked out and numbered, right on the pavement. Camilla was nervous. Actually, Camilla was so badly frightened that her legs were trembling and she was finding it difficult to get her breath. Determined to pull herself together, she approached the building, climbed the few stairs to the front entrance and pushed open the door. The inside was even more of a shock than the outside. White walls were covered with student art—bright paintings of every color; hardwood floors gleamed; and she could hear, down the long hall, the quiet murmur of a good many more than twenty-five voices. She looked into a few classrooms and could hardly believe she was in the town where she grew up. She had taken in the radical changes, could see what the school had accomplished, and she was eager to talk to Mrs. Randolph. She found the school office and before she knew it she was inside, asking a bright-looking young woman to tell her where she might find Mrs. Randolph. Mrs. Randolph, Camilla explained, had been her teacher when she went to school there, not too long ago.
The young woman, whose name was Lois, looked genuinely sorry to disappoint, but she shook her head. She had remembered Camilla’s name, and used it in hopes it would soften the bad news.
“I am so very sorry, Mrs. Ainsworth. Mrs. Randolph left when the plan for the new building was approved.”
This didn’t quite make sense to Camilla, and it was a minute before she responded, “That is a surprise, Lois. Mrs. Randolph dreamed of teaching in a building like this, where the students had plenty of room and there could be more teachers—a teacher for every subject. Goodness, I am puzzled by this news.”
“No need to be. Mrs. R loved the building plans, loved the drawings of the whole layout, loved the classrooms. None of that was a problem. She was very excited about the new possibilities for her classes. No, it was because every other teacher was in favor of tearing down the old school and putting up this new school right where it was. I hope I’m not being disrespectful to call her Mrs. R. It’s what we all called her.”
At this, Camilla had to laugh. “Not only don’t I think it’s disrespectful, but it was two of us in my class who called her that for the first time. But I still don’t understand why she quit her job. That seems like a pretty serious thing to do.”
“It must have been. I think when her ideas were ignored entirely, she just felt she couldn’t stay.”
That day, on the first of many visits she would make to the school, she said goodbye to Lois, closed the office door behind her, and made a decision. She would talk to whoever took Mrs. Randolph’s position, hoping that person had at least gotten an address that she would be willing to share with a former student. Although she didn’t know it, Camilla would spend most of the rest of that day in the building. She felt both envy and a desire to one day teach in just such a place.
She spotted a classroom with a sign for 10thgrade American Literature, taught by a Mrs. Watkins. Somehow, although Mrs. R had always taught younger students, this felt right. Mrs. Watkins might even be Mrs. R’s replacement. If she wasn’t, this was still a small town and she would surely know the whereabouts of Mrs. Randolph and Eudora Marker and, for Camilla, just knowing where they were would be a comfort, even if the news was that they had moved across the country. She would feel she had made at least indirect contact and it would give her the courage she would need to do whatever came next. Camilla was getting more determined and more hopeful.
She reached for the doorknob and turned it without making a sound. She could hear the rustle of clothes and papers and the murmur of student voices. The door was only open a crack and sound was too muffled for her to tell what they were saying. Occasionally, she caught a deeper voice, definitely a woman, most likely Mrs. Watkins, but Camilla couldn’t see whoever belonged to that voice. She had relaxed a bit and was leaning on the wall, taking the opportunity to get her bearings while she waited for the class to be over. Her eyes were almost closing when she was nearly jolted out of her skin by a familiar voice shouting her name.
“Camilla Whitfield, you left before we could discuss The Scarlet Letter! I don’t know how you managed it, but you are in luck today. Come in here right this minute, and no arguments.”
Camilla had by now opened the door and, before she could see a thing, she found herself enveloped by a warm body and two strong arms. She couldn’t remember ever being embraced with that kind of enthusiasm. She suddenly realized that she felt happy.
` “Dora? What on earth? Is this your class? You’re teaching here? Did you come when Mrs. R left? Oh, heavens, you are right in the middle of a discussion and here I am asking questions. I am so sorry. I’ll go back out and wait in the office until you have time.” Camilla was embarrassed and, as she usually did when she was embarrassed, she was talking much too fast and much too loud. She had begun her quest for information about teaching by making a fool of herself in front of a room full of students.
Meanwhile, Eudora had turned around to face the class and was saying something about The Scarlet Letter.
“Class, we have a visitor. She is an old friend and we were interrupted quite some time ago in the middle of a discussion of this very novel. Mrs. Ainsworth—is that right? Camilla, meet my class. We are honored to have you.”
Camilla checked herself to be sure she actually felt the way she felt. It was like taking her pulse. She was no longer nervous, not a bit. As a matter of fact, she felt confident and completely at home in this unfamiliar school, facing a room full of young people every one of whom was a stranger. She was going to have to say something about a novel she read years ago. She barely remembered the story, let alone why it was so important. And then the strangest thing happened. She walked toward the front of the room, looked out at the sea of faces, smiled and said,
“Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, is possibly the best-known American novel. What do you think it is about? Take a minute or two to think before answering. Raise your hand if you have something to say.”
And that was that. She spent the rest of the day with Dora, joining discussions in her other classes, watching her friend teach. She was good. Camilla knew she could be good, too. She and Dora agreed to share a quick supper and go together to see Mrs. Randolph.
December 11 2018: A Note on Chapter Nineteen: No, I had not forgotten this, or any of the other chapters in this difficult novel. I will confess that, although I had not forgotten them, I had certainly set them aside and once again devoted my energies to writing about my friend, Joseph Raffael, and–for my sins–reading the NYTimes.