At first, I didn’t know what to make of Miss Derryl Gray, my English teacher in my junior year of high school. Her teaching persona ranged from unconventionally permissive to strict disciplinarian, and you never knew which one would show up on any given day. My feelings for her ran hot and cold. Winning my heart was the cool hipster lady with the beehive hairdo teaching Bob Dylan lyrics in her poetry class, but who could morph into the old-fashioned prune faced schoolmarm criticizing my unruly classroom behavior if I didn’t conform sufficiently to her rules of decorum.
One day we were given an assignment to write a short story in the style of Ernest Hemingway. We first had to read “The Old Man and the Sea” followed by two of his short stories, “Hills like White Elephants” and “A Clean Well-Lighted Place.” After our reading and class discussions of these works, she walked us through Hemingway’s “Iceberg Theory.” Hemingway believed the true meaning of a piece of writing should not be evident from the surface story; rather, the crux of the story lies below the surface and should be allowed to shine through.
We were instructed to write a story applying this theory and using the key elements that distinguished Hemingway’s minimalist technique: a clean pared down style, short unadorned, declarative and rhythmic sentences, with much of the story told through the character’s dialogue. She told us to try and incorporate the theme of morality and character using naturalistic settings as Hemingway did so often. I went home and wrote my story. It was about a boy and girl, clearly romantically involved, walking to school in the early morning, who stop under a tree in a field some distance outside the school to smoke a joint. But the girl has never used marijuana before and is resistant to it now, uncomfortable with the boy who is gently and sweetly pressuring her to try it. Gently and sweetly, yet relentlessly.
The sun is rising through the oaks and the light is fractured through the trees in jagged patterns on the grass around them. It is cold. The girl shivers. The boy keeps offering her the joint but she keeps her arms tightly wrapped around herself. Bird calls and a distant school bell the only sounds. Their breath is visible in the chilly air. The boy tells her he loves her, but the reader is not convinced. Much of the story is told in dialogue. The girl finally takes the joint and inhales, before they head to class. The boy’s goal had been achieved, the story had a momentum and suspense that resolved itself, but there was a decidedly ambiguous feeling of violation and moral trespass at the end.
I was not used to being praised for my academic achievements, (I’m sure the school’s consensus that I didn’t apply myself held credence) so when I reported to class the day after I turned in my story, I was gobsmacked to see Miss Gray hold my very own pages above her head, and waving them in the air to declare it the best written story of the class, adding that only I had successfully used all the style elements and wrote a near perfect example of Hemingway’s technique, both thematically and stylistically. She then proceeded to read it aloud as I sat at my desk nearly bursting with pride. This hard won moment of triumph that I was briefly allowed to shine in was unfortunately and swiftly followed by a reactionary response from my prudish anti-drug crusading mother (it was 1969 when many parents feared an entire generation of teenagers were on the verge of becoming heroin addicts), who after reading the story, with the big red A+ plastered above the title, got in her Ford Country Squire station wagon and drove down to the school to lodge a formal complaint against Miss Gray for condoning the use of drugs and glorifying criminal behavior.
There was also a line in the story where the boy says that smoking weed makes him “horny.” Maybe this was the more offensive element as she also accused Miss Gray and the school of rewarding sexually immoral content. To say I was appalled and humiliated for my mother’s overwhelming ignorance, put so brazenly and shockingly on public display, without any self-awareness of her unenlightenment, would be an understatement of massive proportion. I was speechless that my mother could do this and not be ashamed and embarrassed for herself. Far from glorifying pot use, the ambiguous, morally suspect, manipulative behavior of the boy in the story was apparently lost on my mother. All she saw was pot smoking and sex.
The following day Miss Gray asked me to stay a moment after class. She only kept me 5 minutes, but in that brief time any complaints I may have harbored about her disciplinary methods faded to nothing and she emerged (as if from a phone booth in cape and tights) as my heroine, my very own avenging angel. I never knew the details of her conversation with my mother nor what transpired between the administration and Miss Gray. I suspect the school supported her 100% and that she diplomatically walked my mother off the ledge by offering her some pacifying assurances the school was not glorifying illegal drug use or promiscuity, and gently steering her towards the more pertinent aspects of my writing skills.
I was used to being censured and chastised in high school, so this figure of authority stepping up to defend me was a new self-esteem boosting experience. Exactly what I needed at exactly the right time. Yes, she was tough, but she was warm and encouraging, and made valiant efforts to reach us with content that spoke to my generation and held a contemporary relevance for us. Our five minutes were almost up. Miss Gray walked a fine line between insisting on her high appraisal of my work, and appeasing a parent’s illegitimate concerns, and though I wanted her to, she would not badmouth my mother. I think she knew though, what I was up against at home, so she straightened my shoulders and looked me straight in the eyes, and told me she had my back. And that she had no intention of downgrading my A+, nor would she be capitulating to any irrational demands, parental or administrative. She was sticking to her guns. She just wanted me to know that she was proud of me for having written the best story of the class, and that no one could take that away from me.
I walked home that day a little taller, my spine a little straighter, basking in the knowledge that someone was proud of my accomplishment. I remembering promising myself I would never goof off in her class again. I had that elusive benediction a teenager can only dream about. An ambassador negotiating on my behalf. I had an advocate willing to go to bat for me. FOR ME! My own defense attorney, my champion, and her name was Miss Gray.