My Virgin Heart in St. Louis: 1954 to 1957 (1)
The Crush, 1954, Buddy Forrester
“My hands were cold and clammy,” my weekly writing assignment began. It was written in 1954 for Mrs. Augusta Gottlieb's eleventh grade English class at University City Senior High School.
Mrs. Gottlieb loved the piece which went on to describe how nervous I became when, at home alone, I watched from a window as Buddy Forrester got out of his car and walked towards the front door of our house on Northmoor Drive. My mother had painted the door a deep periwinkle to indicate that there were marriageable daughters living in the house, three of us.
He was an extraordinarily handsome 21-year-old who wanted to fly. Everyone knew that airplanes were his passion and that his eyesight was not good enough for him to enlist in the U. S. Air Force as a pilot.
The rest of my composition went something like this:
My face flushed as I opened the door. He came in asking how everyone was.... We didn't sit down during our short conversation, but instead stood leaning on my mother's grand piano near the front hall.... I trembled, not knowing what to say. He had just got back from a journey, he said, and is your sister home, he asked?....
Mrs. Gottlieb submitted my assignment to the committee that chose pieces to be published in the school's yearly literary review. But it was rejected. Exposing my feelings by listing symptoms of fear and desire in my body was too “purple,” the committee said.
The definition of “purple” prose must have changed over the years, or maybe there is so much good current prose that would have been considered “purple” years ago, that the word has assumed a different meaning. I understand that it now indicates the use of elaborate and flowery language. I have never used flowery language, so the committee’s complaint could not have been my choice of words. However, I agreed that the piece was embarrassing for me and for anyone else who might read it.
Mrs. Gottlieb was disappointed by the rejection, but I was relieved that Buddy Forrester would never see written proof that I had a crush on him.
I didn't like to read or write in high school or college. I only liked art and music, especially folk music. Reading literature was a chore, and writing was torture. I had nothing to say. The piece I wrote about Buddy's visit was the exception. It flowed out of me easily. It was no problem for me to describe the physiology of a crush, the sequence of reactions that took over my girl’s body when I was near someone about whom I daydreamed and made up love fantasies.
University City Senior High School administrators tracked students, and Mrs. Gottlieb happened to have been assigned the highest-scoring students for our Class of 1956. I loved her. I wanted to please her and, although I couldn’t understand why some literature was considered great and some not, I paid attention to her hoping to correct my deficiency.
Her lessons have had more staying power with me than any other teacher's. More than sixty years have passed, and I can still see the sign resting on the blackboard ledge in her classroom: “All great books were written this morning.”
She also had on constant display an image of Joan of Arc painted and scumbled with a palette-knife on a narrow piece of cardboard depicting the saint standing in full armor looking up with her arms crossed over her heart as though in a spiritual daze. Painted by a student four years earlier, it was a standard against which we younger students evaluated our expressive artistic abilities. But it also let us know that Mrs. Gottlieb cared about her students’ artistic productions as well as their thoughts about literature.
I can picture her, already late middle-aged and slightly overweight, standing in front of the class holding a small book, Tennyson’s “Idylls of the King” and reading from it.
“We needs must love the highest when we see it,” was a warning about the choices that we students would be making soon as adults: we should choose the virgin Arthur over the disloyal Lancelot.
“The old order changeth yielding place to new, And God fulfills himself in many ways, lest one good custom should corrupt the world,” told us about the fickle nature of things beyond our control: good leaders will die and good regimes will end but in the long run it is all for the best.
She seemed to prefer literature with moral lessons, Russian and British novels with complex plots in which most of the characters get their comeuppance in the end, and stark American novels like “The Scarlet Letter” and “Ethan Frome.”
“Kristin Lavransdatter,” by Norwegian novelist Sigrid Undset was a staple. I remember being alone with Mrs. Gottlieb only once, probably after class one day. I asked her about “Kristin Lavransdatter.” I wanted to know if she agreed that two young persons making love before marrying had no right to do so. And was the sex act a sort of crime for which each participant would be and probably should be punished? Yes, she said, perhaps in some well-intentioned attempt to help me preserve my virginity, it was wrong to have sex outside of marriage, and, she implied, do not even think about having sex any time soon.
Mrs. Gottlieb hid her sophistication, I believe, because we were young and she didn’t want to be a part of any child’s corruption. In her heart she could not have been so rigid a moralist as she appeared to me to be that day. When she said in a circus barker's voice, as she often did, “You pays yer money and you makes yer cherce.” she was presenting a formula for breaking society’s rules, an existential axiom: You are responsible for everything that you choose to do. If you choose to commit an act that others think is criminal and you take responsibility for that act by accepting its consequences and by paying for it, then it is not a criminal act.
Mrs. Gottlieb had an ongoing argument with an English Literature teacher at Clayton High School about educational philosophy. He assigned only literature that was appropriate to the age group that he taught, high school students, and that was easily understood by them. Mrs. Gottlieb believed in the “deep freeze” method, confronting the students with novels and poems that they could not possibly understand.
She wanted us to send her postcards in years to come throughout our lives telling her that we finally understood something that we had read in class with a new clarity, such as Dorothea’s odd behavior when dividing with her younger sister their deceased mother’s jewelry at the start of “Middlemarch.”
She wasn’t expecting postcards like, “I now understand why Ana Karenina threw herself under the train and I’m on the way to the station now.”
Henrik Ibsen’s play “A Doll’s House” (1879) was one of her favorites, and it got as close to scary as Mrs. Gottlieb ever got. She couldn’t have realized then how prophetic the play was. Maybe she saw Nora as being atypical, forced by chance events to see her life for what it was, and having the courage to try to understand her society and to try to change herself. Who could have imagined in the 1950’s that twenty years later American women would follow in Nora’s footsteps and walk out of their dollhouses?
In retrospect I see Mrs. Gottlieb as a woman who complied with an unjust but comfortable world. Sighs of complaint were inevitable, so the written word, especially prose, absorbed discontent. If we agreed with Ibsen that a woman could not be herself in modern society because feminine conduct was judged from a male point of view, we were just happy that he had pointed out the truth.
The books that we read with her didn't prepare us for the revolutions that we were about to live through. Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening” (1899) was not available. It would have let young women like us know what was in store for them once they got out of their dollhouses. “The Awakening” was not republished until the Feminist movement took on momentum years later.
Mrs. Gottlieb didn’t assign us “The Ways of White Folks,” (1934) Langston Hughes’ collection of short stories depicting white antagonists’ black hearts, although she must have known about the book and the controversial reviews that it had received. Even liberal whites were upset by the exposure of racism on every level of society. It wasn’t until a Birmingham, Alabama, newspaper in 1963 published photos of Bull Conner’s use of attack dogs and fire hoses against peaceful civil rights demonstrators that the American people began to acknowledge the cruelties of racism in America.
I can’t recall a single homosexual protagonist in any of the books that we read, or author, for that matter. E. M. Forster was a great writer, but we read his books not knowing that he was gay. Forster’s novel “Maurice” about same-sex love in the early 20th century was published in 1971 after Forster died.
Nor was Walt Whitman ever shown to us to be a man who made love to men. He himself wrote that he studiedly concealed what lay behind “Leaves of Grass” (1855) and purposely left some passages obscure.
When I was very young, pacifism was a notion that Americans read about and talked about, but only Quakers practiced non-violence. Their religious beliefs exempted them from the military draft. Many high school students were required, as were we, to read Henry David Thoreau’s essay, “Civil Disobedience” (1849).
First in South Africa and later in India, Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) proved that non-violence is a powerful weapon. Albert Einstein (1879-1955) defined his pacifism as “an instinctive feeling,” Still alive was Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) who spoke of “reverence for life.” Everyone admired Schweitzer but not many followed him.
Non-violent struggles and civil disobedience came to America shortly after the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, and the murder of Emmet Till in September, 1955.
During my last semester in high school, early in 1956, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. led the Montgomery Bus Boycott in support of Rosa Parks’ civil disobedience. King advocated the use of Gandhi’s non-violent tactics in the struggle for civil rights.
Coincident with the non-violent American civil rights movement was the violent American proxy war that occurred in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. America supported the government of South Vietnam and fought against North Vietnam and its allies, the Soviet Union and China, from November, 1955 to April, 1975.
So while the Reverend King led a non-violent movement to end segregation and injustice at home, our government secretly fought a brutal war in Southeast Asia without Congress’ having declared war, at first dropping bombs, and later sending ground troops into Vietnam in full view of everyone.
There was a lot going on in the world while I was in high school, but I wasn't much interested in it at the time. I was in a cocoon of growth, both physical and intellectual. A few years passed before I became serious about human rights, civil liberties and pacifism, and even more years before I fought for causes.
I suspect that, had I asked Mrs. Gottlieb about the advisability of my becoming a protester for causes, she would have discouraged me as thoroughly as she had discouraged me from having sex.
My crush on Buddy Forrester dissolved one summer evening at home when a group of us, my sisters and I, Don Thursby, who was later to marry my sister Cynthia, Frank Pierson, and Buddy were sitting around and talking. As the baby sister I was the youngest person in the room and perhaps the most innocent. The topic of having sex before marriage came up.
Buddy advocated trying out potential partners. He argued that it was like squeezing grapefruits at the market in order to choose the best one. An image of Buddy inspecting and then groping a rack of large yellow grapefruits at a fruit stand, one after the other, froze in my mind. I didn’t like it at all. He laughed at me when I expressed my unhappiness with his crude analogy. We fought with words a little. He held his ground and I stopped loving him.
A few weeks later, Buddy came by the house saying that he wanted to see a particular movie, but that he didn’t want to go alone. Would anyone go with him? He would pay, of course. He asked every one of the six people in the room, finally getting around to me last of all.
“This is my opportunity,” I thought, but then I thought again. The invitation was too casual, and the experience of being alone with him would be too intimate for me to bear. My hands would go clammy. I might blush and be speechless, even if I had stopped loving him. My virgin heart said, “No. No, thanks.”
Buddy Forrester learned to fly at Parks Air College, in Illinois, the oldest flight school in America. He had a long and modestly successful career flying for Frontier Airlines and other Midwestern airlines. He married a woman named Patsy and they had two children. When my sister, Cynthia Thursby and her husband Don moved to California they lost touch with the Forresters.
In retrospect I think that the literary committee at University City Senior High School erred in refusing to print my assignment. In a burst of spontaneous intellect I had stumbled onto a genre employed by Sappho of Lesbos many years ago with great effect.
In her famous poem “Phainetai moi” Sappho describes her feelings of jealousy as she watches a girl talking with a handsome young man. She doesn’t say, “I desire that girl and I am jealous that she is talking with that man.” Instead she lists her physical symptoms, the effects of her jealousy, sequential changes in her body, one after the other, as she sinks into a funk. This is the second half of the extant poem as translated by John Hall in 1652:
My fainting flesh, my sight doth fail
Augusta Gottlieb died in St Louis in 1993 at the age of 92.
After she retired in 1966, Mrs. Gottlieb went on to teach part-time in a high school for Jewish girls. She confided in us, her former public school students, that it hurt her deeply that the girls she taught preferred the other English teacher, a young, handsome man, even though he was inexperienced and not very knowledgeable.
It was the last lesson I learned from Mrs. Gottlieb, a good lesson for teachers, durable and comforting. I remember it often.
First, imagine a classroom. Giddy girls sit at school desks, excited by an attractive young man who stands in front of them presenting a mediocre lecture. Then imagine the same girls sitting in the same classroom and looking at Mrs. Gottlieb. Unable or unwilling to comprehend her modest brilliance, they shift around in their seats and frown. When will this class be over, they think, impatient to get out their mirrors and to study their own reflections.
Now put yourself in front of these girls. Of course you feel hurt. But don’t feel sorry for yourself. They didn’t like Mrs. Gottlieb either. Don’t blame anyone; don’t be discouraged; do the best you can under the circumstances.
Like the wild hyacinth flower which on the hills is found,
copyright © 2017 Minerva Durham