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  • The Way I Saw the World Then
  • Elise Juska (bio)

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Photograph by Robert S. Donovan

[End Page 38]

The day Ms. Moreau would cry in front of her freshman honors English class was the stuff of Lawrence High School legend. It happened every year, could happen at any time. Some innocuous eighth period as the school buses sat chugging by the curb and the minute hand stuttered toward 2:39, Ms. Moreau would announce she was going to read her favorite poem, then read, cry and dismiss the class with a wave of her thick-ringed hand.

Ms. Moreau was rigid and unsentimental, which made the promise of this breakdown all the more fascinating. She wore precise black makeup, her face an assemblage of punctuation marks: eyebrows [End Page 39] curved like parentheses, eyelashes stiff and crisp as commas. Her black hair was short, wet-looking, her thin mouth traced with plum lipstick and prone to twitching. She wore trim pants and square green glasses and blunt, chunky jewelry. Sometimes a particularly pronounced accessory—a bright knotted scarf, a giant pin—made Emma wince for Ms. Moreau, as did the "Ms." in her name, which she insisted upon on the students' papers, slashing through the "r" in "Mrs." with her red pen.

Most students did not like Ms. Moreau. She was a demanding teacher and a hard grader, despite the chipper posters plastering her classroom—Read for Fun! and Poetry: The Write Stuff—an advertised enthusiasm at odds with the general climate of honors English, whose twenty-two members were as skeptical as they were smart. The lower-track classes were tough in obvious ways—walking past their closed doors, Emma could hear the gleeful shouts and hard laughter from within. With honors students, the resistance was subtle but more impenetrable. They were not easily moved.

Emma liked English class, though she knew Ms. Moreau would have fared better if she cracked jokes like Mr. Holling or gave all her students nicknames like Mr. Wick, who wore jeans, chewed Tootsie Pops and frequently yanked down the mustard-colored shades to snap on a movie, eliciting a burst of applause. Even when Ms. Moreau put a paper bag over her head to illustrate existentialism in Beowulf, she was so earnest about it, so humorless, it only invited quietly rolled eyes. On the rare occasion when Ms. Moreau showed a movie, she prefaced it with a sigh. It wasn't resignation or annoyance but a glint of some deeper sense of personal failure. When she rolled her fingers across her temples, eyes closed, and said, "Filmstrip," the class cheered, but Emma knew it wasn't a reward. It was more like when her mother said, "You're on your own for dinner," and shut the bedroom door.

Emma felt sorry for Ms. Moreau. She was an unhappy person, Emma thought, one who lived alone in a huge, clean house. Everything about her seemed so overworked, so effortful—and for what? Them? She didn't appear to have much else in her life except for her legendary dead son.

How Ms. Moreau's son had died was a story that was regularly revised and distorted—suicide, car accident, rare congenital defect. In some versions the son was a sickly baby, in others a willful teenager tempting fate on a railroad track or a frozen lake. There were no photos on Ms. Moreau's desk, of her son or anyone else, unlike Emma's father's desk at the college, [End Page 40] which was crowded with family photos and New Yorker cartoons about unfinished novels and hair loss. Even her mother's desk at St. Hubert's Catholic grade school held Emma's school picture in a plain gold frame.

Emma's father taught creative writing two afternoons a week. This didn't require much of him, not nearly as much as her mother's job at St. Hubert's—"in the trenches," her mother said, referring to the tough neighborhood of West Philly where she taught. Emma's mother came home exhausted, fending off headaches. She occasionally had her tires slashed in the school parking...


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