- Mr. Sears
Childhood is self-enclosed and timeless. In adolescence, a moment comes when we sense the future, if only vaguely and ecstatically. For me, that happened on a boarding school trip to Quebec. It was 1962 and I was fourteen. The circumstances of the excursion have gotten fuzzy in my memory, but I do know we traveled by school bus, and that a loudmouth named Warren played “Ape Call” (Nervous Norvus, 1956) over and over on one of those portable record players built into small suitcases. I recall that we stayed at the Château Frontenac, but I don’t think that can be right. We probably only saw the Frontenac.
My three Buxton roommates and I were crowded into a small room. There was a lot of giggling, as you might expect, but also some serious talk late at night after the most powerful girl among us had fallen asleep and we no longer needed to fear her ridicule. On that trip I got a little more respect than usual from the others, probably because they could see that I was under the protection of the French teacher, who’d been counseling me informally over the past year. We’d been meeting once a week for half an hour after French class was dismissed. Our sessions consisted mostly of talk from me and receptive silence from Mr. Sears. The school was (and, fifty years later, continues to be) progressive, so I imagine that some committee assigned me to him for remediation of social backwardness and a tendency to skip out on classes. At the time, I thought he did it out of fondness, and he was fond of me, I still feel sure, though his affection was inflected by more detachment and amusement than I was yet able to understand. I remember nothing of the content of our talks, but I’ll never forget how flattered I was by his grave attentiveness. Once, when some girls snickered at my new hat, he drew me aside and told me he found it fetching.
Mr. Sears was the second of four “male mother” figures to whom I became attached between the ages of twelve and twenty-two. He was lanky and tall and made me think of Aristide Bruant, Toulouse-Lautrec’s stylish cabaret performer, the one with the red scarf flung around his neck. Mr. Sears had a similarly fine three-quarters profile, [End Page 53] but he was elderly and far from raffish. Instead, he was slow-moving, deliberate, and dignified, a constant smoker with a much imitated habit of clearing his throat in the middle of a sentence.
I repaid his kindness to me by developing a devoted nonsexual crush on him, though that was challenged three times: first when I caught sight of his upper molars, again when it got back to me that he’d expressed skepticism about my claim that I was sick and should be excused from math class (“Emily is not delicate,” the student representative who sat in on faculty meetings reported him to have said, “she is—cough cough—robusta”), and finally on the Quebec trip, when he spoke abruptly to me in the hotel breakfast room. I approached him at a far table where he was having a word with two sheepish-looking boys and asked him how to say “the bathroom” in French. I knew quite well that “salle de bain” was the textbook phrase, but worried that it sounded too formal for Quebec. I’d also forgotten that we were expected to speak French at all times. He turned to me and snapped, “les toilettes,” then went back to his questioning of the boys.
In those days, I was absurdly thin-skinned, but also resilient. By the time my roommates and I stole out of the hotel that evening at dusk, the sting of the hurt had abated, leaving me in the kind of dilated state that makes everything seem sad, but beautifully so. It was late fall, and chilly. The narrow waterfront streets were pocked with icy puddles reflecting the pink and blue sky. Behind and above us brooded the Chateau Frontenac. Ahead...