Edith Schrantz, Pedant
In the fall of 1967, I entered the advanced English class of Edith Schrantz, a stick-thin, late middle-aged woman with far too many bracelets on her bony arms. She was the wife of Ellston Schrantz, my American history teacher and a pretty regular guy. She was also the teacher for the college prep class, the high-achievement group, the smart kids. The year had begun well. We read Hamlet, had some interesting discussions, and started to prepare for the all-important SAT, the one test that would strongly influence whether we high-achieving, smart, college-prep kids would be able to apply for an Ivy League school or have to settle for one of the many, lesser state schools.
I had no particular collegiate ambitions then. All I wanted was to be the smartest kid in the junior class, which was tough among my over-achieving college-preppie peers. In that group, if you got a “B” on anything, you didn’t tell anybody. Several of my classmates were straight-A students, including math and chemistry, and had been for years. I was an A-B student in those classes, so my desire to be the unofficial “smartest kid in the junior class” looked a bit ambitious. Still, I was a killer in English. Though most of my peers read books, I ate them. I lived on them. I had been reading daily ever since the fifth grade. I always carried one with me and read it anywhere, anytime--before and after class, and even during class when I had finished whatever assignment we were given, or if class was simply boring. Almost anything interested me--political and military history, classics of highbrow literature as well as mysteries and crime novels, science fiction and popular magazines. Thus English class--formal grammar, vocabulary, and reading comprehension--had long been a breeze, an "easy A," so easy that when we began working from the official SAT preparation book, with its word lists, analogies, grammar analysis and “collegiate reading passages,” I wasn’t in the least worried. I rarely found an SAT word I didn’t already know.
So when Edith Schrantz told us to open our prep books late one sunny October morning, I had no idea my world was about to change. Don’t ask me why it happened. Maybe I had skipped breakfast. Maybe I had exchanged knowing smirks with one of my unofficial rivals for Smartest Kid in the Junior Class just as Edith told us to open our books. Maybe my testosterone had finally kicked in, or maybe I had just had enough of her incessant playing with her bevy of bangling bracelets. Whatever my true motive, destiny, as the cliché goes, was about to take a hand. It arrived innocuously enough--the word equinox.
As the lesson proceeded, SAT Prep Vocabulary List #11, I felt no imminent doom. I sat there, bored as usual, as Edith jabbered on with her superfluous explanations, and I saw nothing unusual when she said,
“Now, class, I have a simple way for you to remember this next word, equinox. Equinox, you see, means that point in the year when the hours of daylight and darkness are equal.”
Yeah, Edith, I know.
“And in the fall, it’s called the ‘autumnal equinox’ since autumn begins then. And in the spring, it’s called what?”
Someone took the bait and raised their hand. “Uh, ..... ‘vernal equinox’?”
“Very good, William” chimed Edith. “You must have studied last week’s word list rather well.
Just get on with it, will you?
“As I’m sure you remember from our study of prefixes, equi means “equal,” as in equidistant or equipoise,” she said. Unfortunately, she was in fine form this day. It was looking like a long vocabulary lesson. “Now, although equinox isn’t a word that we use very often, which can make it hard to remember, I have a solution for that problem.”
It’s not a problem.
“And it might surprise you to know that Easter Sunday, which we all know quite well, is just that solution. You see, Easter always falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon, after the first day of spring. And what is another term for ‘first day of spring’?”
“Vernal equinox” came the ready reply from several of the ass-kissers in class.
“Exactly!” Edith beamed.
Jesus, she’s getting enthusiastic.
“So,” she intoned, a look of pedagogical satisfaction on her face, “all you have to do is remember that Easter falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox, or first day of spring.”
Okay, so I didn’t know about the Easter-full moon connection. So what? I don’t care when Easter comes. I already know what equinox means.
Edith didn’t care either. She told us again.
“It’s that easy. Easter always falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox, or first day of spring.”
Yeah, Edith, I know!
“Got that?” she asked, placing her elbows on her desktop, her hands folded under her chin, the bracelets jingling their way down her bony arms toward those bony elbows. “Easter always falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the ...” Her voice seemed to slowly fade into another voice that had taken over inside my head.
“Mrs. Schrantz? Why have you deigned to impart to us this piece of invaluable information?” The voice, I knew, was mine, as was the question, though the vocabulary came straight from the last two weeks’ SAT word lists. Yeah, she was imparting to us, all right. No doubt about it. And the information sure was invaluable. I’d never think of Easter in the same way. And how she deigned! I’d never seen such inspired deigning in my life.
Suddenly, I felt the hand of Fate grab mine and raise it into the air in the universal sign that Jimmy Has a Question. Only I didn’t. Of course, I did, but I wasn’t nuts enough to ask her. Yet just as in those nightmares where you’re trying to run away from some monster, only your legs turn to lead, it gains on you and Death seems inevitable, I felt my arm rising into the air, the words forming in my mind. Like some backwards tape-delay broadcast, I heard myself asking the fateful question beforeI had opened my mouth. I don't know why I didn't stop myself. A fatalistic nonchalance came over me just then, as if I had suddenly discovered that I was on the Titanic, and not in one of the lifeboats. Might as well relax, enjoy the moment, and give the folks down below a good show.
“Mrs. Schrantz?” I asked in my usual sincere voice.
“Yes, Mark?” she replied, clearly anticipating some pertinent, perhaps even insightful query or comment from that nice Mark McTague boy, Competitor #3 for the title of Smartest Kid in the Junior Class.
“Why have you deigned to impart to us this piece of invaluable information?” I asked in a voice keen with intended sarcasm. Time slowed to a stop. In that frozen moment, as the air grew quite still, I could hear the kid next to me breathing, though not as clearly as my own heart pounding. Edith’s face went blank, as what little color she had quickly rushed to her cheeks.
“Excuse me? Did I hear you right? Would you mind repeating that?” she asked, her voice cool, flat, and devoid of the espirit du pedagogue she had been enjoying just a moment ago. Having impaled myself on my own petard, I figured I might as well hoist away.
“Yes, why have you deigned to impart to us this piece of invaluable information?”
As I slowly twisted there, high up on my own petard, I felt the ground receding from view. The end was mercifully short.
“Come up here right now. And gather your books and bring them with you. You’re not staying.”
I did as I was told, and as I walked up to her desk at the front of the room, out of the corners of my eyes I could see the faces of several of my classmates. Some were smirking, but most had the look you get when you drive slowly past a nasty auto accident, the blood still wet on the pavement. When I got to her desk, she told me to stop. Edith wasn’t finished with me.
“Young man, I’ve been teaching for a lot more years than you’ve been alive, and I’ve never heard such impertinence. The presumption! And I thought you were a serious student. Well, that’s it. Take your books and go down to the office. Maybe they can figure out what to do with you.”
No final words for the condemned. No last looks around. I quietly opened the door and stepped out of Advanced English and into the hall of the junior wing of Huntingdon Senior High School. I hesitated a moment, not because I was contemplating a melodramatic rush back into the classroom, hurling myself at her feet in abject supplication. No, I simply felt the disorientation of the man who comes to the surface of the water after having fallen overboard, the cruise ship sailing on as the waves break over him.
I knew where the principal’s office was. Might as well get this over with. The soft echo of my footsteps accompanied me down the hallways, and I soon found myself outside the door of the main office. The knob felt cold in my hand as I opened the door and went in. Only one other student was there, some guy with the nonchalant countenance of the repeat offender. He slouched in a chair against the wall, oblivious to the new arrival. As it was not quite 10:30 in the morning, and I was standing with all my books under my arm, the office secretary asked me why I was there. I only said that Mrs. Edith Schrantz had sent me down to see the principal--I wasn’t going to treat anyone, least of all the miscreant slouched in the chair, to a repeat performance of my recent debacle. Since the principal was out of the school at the moment, she told me to go in and talk to the junior guidance counselor. A temporary reprieve of sorts. At least my humiliation would be a little less public.
I hadn’t spoken to the guidance counselor since she had visited our class at the beginning of September to introduce herself. Like most of the staff at school, she was older than our parents, with a good bit of gray hair, so I faintly hoped that some grandmotherly spirit might protect me from further degradation. As I stood in her office doorway, she motioned me to come in and sit down.
“I was told that something happened in Mrs. Schrantz’s English class. Do you want to tell me about it?” she said in a flat voice. As if I had a choice. So I began, slowly, to tell her how I had single-handedly gotten myself kicked out of English class for the rest of the school year. As I recounted my heroic stupidity, I saw a gleam come into her eyes. Now what? Was she going to start yelling at me like I knew my parents would about six hours later? I was about to get my second shock in the past twenty minutes.
A grin, like the Cheshire cat’s, suddenly spread across her face, and before I could wonder what was going on, she started laughing as if I had just told her the best joke she’d heard in months.
“Hey, Mary! Come in here! You gotta hear this!” She shouted to the office secretary, who quickly appeared at the door. “Go ahead. Tell her.” the counselor told me, still flashing her Cheshire cat smile. So tell her I did, succinctly this time. Mary almost doubled over laughing. I was beginning to think I had fallen down the rabbit’s hole. What was next? A funny little man in a large top hat inviting me to tea? That man soon appeared in the person of the vice-principal, the father of one of my classmates upstairs in Edith’s English class.
“Something going on?” he asked in a friendly voice as he appeared at the door next to Mary. “I heard you two laughing.”
“Oh, Mr. Brentley, we shoulda been there! Tell him, Mark.” the guidance counselor said. But before I could start retelling what was now beginning to sound like part of a weird stand-up comedy routine, she took over for me and told him the story herself. But, of course, when it came to the punch line, she turned to me with that same Cheshire smile and said, “Go ahead, Mark. Tell Mr. Brentley what you said.” Mark did as he was told.
“Why have you deigned to impart to us this piece of invaluable information?” I said as matter-of-factly as I could. Mr. Brentley got a grin from ear to ear, as if I’d just told him he’d been promoted to principal at twice his salary.
“You’re kidding me!” He said incredulously. “You’re kidding me!”
“Deigned!” said the guidance counselor.
“Invaluable information!” Mary added, as everyone began laughing again. That did it. I was in Wonderland now.
Turning to me, the guidance counselor said in a voice replete with sympathy and almost conspiratorial camaraderie, “If you only knew, Mark. And you, of all people! Oh, if only we could have been there.” she said, sounding like she had just missed lunch with the Pope and the President together.
“It’s about time someone put Edith in her place.” Mary added emphatically.
“Yeah,” the counselor agreed, “she got a taste of her own medicine today, didn’t she?”
This was getting curiouser and curiouser. What next? The guidance counselor quickly, almost routinely, told me how I would be spending the rest of my junior year in Mrs. Preston’s Standard English class. Otherwise, my life at Huntingdon Senior High would remain unchanged. When she finished, she chuckled and said, “Ah, Mark, you’ve made our day.” And then, in a theatrical whisper, she said, grinning, “Don’t tell anyone I said that.”
There was no danger of that. When you’ve fallen down the rabbit hole, no one believes you anyway. Besides, I wasn’t about to tell anyone I had gotten kicked out of English class for being a smart-mouthed jerk, least of all my parents. Somehow I had to keep them from finding out. Like most working class parents, especially of their generation, being a student meant one thing--you worked your butt off studying and you respected your teachers like your own parents. If you ever got in trouble at school for anything, you didn’t tell your parents because whatever punishment you got at school, they’d make sure you got it again at home, and more. So I figured if I just didn’t say anything, I just might keep it quiet. They didn’t know any of the school’s teachers. I only had two classmates who lived anywhere near us, and my parents never spoke to their parents. Besides, my brother had graduated high school the year before, so I was really the only one who knew. What my folks didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them, or me.
I found out otherwise about a week later, just as I was getting used to being By Far the Smartest Kid in Mrs. Preston’s Standard English class. In the middle of dinner that evening, my dad said, “Mark, what’s this I hear about you being in another English class?” Great. Even a week late would be too soon to escape the guillotine in our house. I looked at my mom, who had been unusually quiet during dinner. Apparently dad had told her what he had heard, which must have been a bit vague on details because she was only frowning, not scowling.
What choice did I have? No time to hide anything now. And if I didn’t tell the truth but tried to paint a rosy picture of what happened, I get killed when he found out what really happened. So I held nothing back nor tried to make myself look good. I told them everything that had transpired that day, including a replay of everything I was thinking prior to the moment when I put both feet in my mouth and insulted my teacher, Mrs. Edith Schrantz. When you’re in confession and your life is on the line, you don’t hold anything back from the priest. When I finished, there was silence, not unlike in those courtroom TV dramas when the judge asks the foreman of the jury, “Have you reached a verdict?” I looked at my dad. No clue as to what he was thinking or feeling. My mom, however, was no longer frowning. They both had calm but thoughtful looks. Then, slowly, I saw my mom’s face relax. I looked back at dad. There was a sly smile at the corners of his mouth. Mom broke the silence.
“Well, old Goody Two-Shoes finally opened his mouth. Good for you, Mark! It’s about time you stood up for yourself.” she said as she looked at me as if I’d been voted class president, unanimously.
Dad agreed and explained how he had heard. One of the men he worked with had a daughter, Cathy Ware, in Mrs. Preston’s class. “So when Bill Ware told me that, I thought ‘That can’t be Mark. Not our Mark.’ Well, you did good, kid. From what Bill Ware told me, she's a bit pompous. I guess you had a burr under your saddle that day. Well, it takes a lot of guts to stand up for yourself. Of course, you don’t have to go out of your way to hurt other people’s feelings, but sometimes that can’t be helped. Don’t worry about it. Pass me some more potatoes, would you, Mary?”
And that was it. And standing up for myself was a good thing. Nothing to worry about. Now I just had to worry about standing up to Mr. Ellston Schrantz, my American history teacher and husband of Edith. He was also my favorite teacher, and so far I had said nothing to him. I had been too ashamed, but I now resolved to apologize to him the next day. Fortunately, it was a Friday, so if he did get angry at my reminder of his wife’s very public insult, he’d have a weekend to calm down before I had to be in his class again.
At the end of class, as the students were leaving, I walked up to him as he was erasing the blackboard. “M-M-Mr. Schrantz?” I stuttered. “M-May I s-s-ay s-something?”
“Yes, Mark?” was all he said. Well, better get it over with.
“I’m very s-s-sorry for what I said to M-M-Mrs. Schrantz. I apologize to you, too.” As I waited for his stern rebuke of my impudence and atrocious manners, the ground opened up and I fell back down the rabbit hole.
“Oh, that’s all right, Mark,” he said in a soft voice as he looked down at the floor. “Sometimes she gets on my nerves, too. Don’t worry about it. I’ll see you Monday.”
Copyright © Mark McTague, 2002