Just a heads up: this one gets pretty heavy.
I’m sure most people had an teacher they loved while they were in school. Maybe it was an English teacher, someone who taught them to love reading, or got them interested in writing. Maybe they were just good teachers whose classes you enjoyed.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about my English teacher during my sophomore year of high school, Mrs. Crispino. She was always something of an odd duck, and more than once described me as a “deer caught in headlights”, a description that isn’t entirely false. Mrs. Crispino was cheerful and friendly, and her assignments were a lot more fun to work on than most. We had to write short romance stories, our reply to the shepherd in “A Passionate Shepherd to His Love”, and research and write an opinion piece on whether or not we thought William Shakespeare was a real person, or a pseudonym.
She and her husband were killed a few summers ago in a motorcycle accident. It was a shock to me. Not only was she my teacher, her son and I were in the same year and we were frenemies. When I heard the news, one of my first thoughts was about her son, his grief, and how scared and adrift he must have felt. I haven’t talked to him since I graduated high school almost ten years ago, but I do catch myself wondering about him and how he’s doing now.
The reason, I think, she’s been on my mind is because of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. I read the book last summer for the first time, and when I posted about it on Facebook, at least three people asked the same question: “How did you get out of reading that in school?”
And the answer is Mrs. Crispino.
Near the end of my sophomore year of high school, a student at another school in the area killed himself. I didn’t know him personally, but I had friends who did. Suicide has always disturbed me, and did even moreso when I was a teenager. I was devastated when I heard about his death, especially when I found out that he was a year younger than me. But because I didn’t know him, I didn’t think it would be right for me to talk about him, or how I felt. I thought trying to talk this through with someone would be disrespectful to his memory.
I wasn’t the only one hurting. Most of the underclassmen were. Our guidance counselors and religion teachers offered us support, with group discussions and prayers, but I didn’t take part. I probably should have.
This was around the time we were finishing All Quiet on the Western Front in English class, and were supposed to move on to Of Mice and Men.
If you haven’t read Of Mice and Men (which I highly recommend you do), what you need to know is that it’s a very sad book. There’s no happy ending.
In English class, we’d read so many tragedies already that year, and now were going through one in real life. We were 200 students in desperate need of a happy ending. After we closed All Quiet on the Western Front for the final time, Mrs. Crispino changed the curriculum. Instead of Of Mice and Men, the last thing we would be reading as a group was Arsenic and Old Lace.
If you’ve never read it, Arsenic and Old Lace is the story of two old women who poison visitors with elderberry wine. Their bodies are buried in the basement by another man who believes that he is Theodore Roosevelt and he’s digging locks for the Panama Canal. It sounds like a grisly story, but it’s a comedy.
And it’s a really good comedy. At times, all my classmates were laughing as we read it, and more than once did I hear it discussed in the halls or at free period. Everyone seemed to be really enjoying it.
Fiction is important. Whether you read for entertainment, to learn, a way to pass the time, you get something out of it. Sometimes it changes you. Sometimes a story stays with you forever.
I can’t say that Arsenic and Old Lace was a life-changing story. What stayed with me wasn’t the old murderesses or the buried bodies. It was the kindness Mrs. Crispino gave our class. She saw how we were hurting, and helped us smile again.
I’ll remember her for many things: her fun class assignments; they way she giggled whenever she read the word “gay”, much like her students; how she helped me be a better writer. But most of all, I’ll remember her for bringing light during a dark time.