My best friend Mona prefaced any philosophical thought with “It must be weird”—as in “It must be weird to be a dumb kid because you don’t even know what you don’t know.” Dumb kids came up in our conversations because of Ms. Tisch. When someone asked if there was going to be a quiz the next day, all she said was: “A word to the wise should prove sufficient.” We considered The Wise to be us.
Ms. Tisch taught fifth- and sixth-grade math and quickly became our favorite teacher, Mona’s and mine. She had taught my brother two grades ahead when she first came to St. Mary’s and was known as Mrs. Tisch. My brother didn’t have much to say about her. In fact, she was largely considered a benign oddball by students and teachers alike.
For one thing, she was homely. Her face owned that passive and retiring word—a word nothing like the frontal assault of ugly. Her two front teeth were crossed. She was rail thin and perfectly straight, like one of the wooden rulers the principal stuck in her ugly potted plants lining the school’s front windows. The sleeves of her corduroy jackets—brown and olive and a bunch of colors in between—were always too short. It made you focus on the odd shape of her wrist bones. I often wondered what you did when you looked like that. It was like wondering about someone with an amputated limb.
Ms. Tisch was also an oddball because she was a married lady who wanted to be called Ms. There was a third-grade teacher who was a Ms., but she was single and in her twenties. This new way to call yourself disrupted how we saw the adults who came in every day and told us how to think. “Mrs.” meant you were some kids’ mother; “Miss” meant you were either waiting to get married or short and fat and always pulling up to school events with restaurant-size trays of lasagna or pierogis in the back seat of your car. And then there were the nuns, whose terrible names all sounded like ancient stalagmite caves in England.
When you were in fifth grade like I was, and even more so in sixth, your goal in life was to be upstairs in seventh and eighth. For one thing, their desks were larger. They had their own bathrooms; they didn’t have to share over six grades plus kindergarten. And they had male math and science teachers. Kids would get excited anticipating this, but my brother only talked about Mr. Dugan’s two enormous perspiration circles on his short-sleeved shirts and the bad breath you could smell from the second row. I had no illusions about the big grades; instead, I wished I could have Ms. Tisch teach me math all the way through high school.
I wasn’t even a math person; Mona wasn’t either. But we loved algebra, could not get enough of scratching out the equations with our sharpened No. 2s. Even though the lead from the pencils we bought for quarters from the supply room tended to smear, everything felt like it had a clean answer during that one year of my life.
We knew very little about our favorite teacher. She had a son who was a senior in high school; I don’t know how we found that out because she certainly didn’t tell us. If you were getting your period for the first time, she would be the last person you’d go to. You’d go to a nun before Ms. Tisch. But this distance is what we liked about her. She was above the squabbles of Catholic rules and propaganda. She ignored the three boys always acting out to get the teacher’s attention, and all of them got bored and stopped. When some kid said something funny, she had a way of almost smiling that made the whole situation even funnier. Mona and I used to try to imitate this look but could never capture it. I thought of it as getting to the absolute end point of a Grand Canyon ledge without falling off.
“Ms. Tisch is so smart,” Mona once said. “I bet she’s not even Catholic.”
“What do you mean Catholic?” I said. “I bet she doesn’t even believe in God.”
She was aghast. “How can you say that?”
“Because I’m me.” That was my answer to everything. But I did think that—that I had the right to say things that seemed true. When something seemed true, it didn’t matter whether, emotionally, I wanted it to be true or not; and it had nothing to do with what adults called gut instinct. Sometimes it was this ugly reality that shocked like a front door slamming in your face. But I could not avoid reporting on this reality. In a weird way, it seemed like what Jesus would want if he could talk for himself, without everybody telling you what he meant.
I learned to humor Mona, who was always herself rather than someone observing herself. She was exactly like girls her age on television shows that taught you how to be a better person. Her father, the one orthodontist on the North Side, always told us to “govern yourselves accordingly.” It seemed such an elegant phrase. My own family was sloppy and falling apart. Nobody hit anybody, but you went home and held your breath.
When I considered our family’s place in the parish, I never attempted to shield myself from the pain of knowing we were poor—not cop-trouble poor, just unremarkably without assets. There were a lot of cop-trouble families in the city, but they usually didn’t attend Catholic schools. The one cop-trouble family at St. Mary’s had the last name Church, which seemed hilarious to everyone not in that family. The Churches had huge foreheads and tiny black eyes set far apart. They reminded me of the spare faces of old stuffed animals from the sixties, before the world was drowning in bolts of cheap acrylic fur and all kinds of stuffed versions of cartoon animals in every discount store.
As an event, Mona’s and my fascination with Ms. Tisch seemed to span a significant epoch of childhood, but it only existed intact during the fall semester of fifth grade. By the time we returned after Christmas break, the next phase of our obsession had already begun. That first day back, Ms. Tisch stood in front of the classroom with a large part of the top-crossed tooth missing.
Because Mona’s father was an orthodontist, she had braces and then perfectly straight teeth. With most kids at that school, however, parents didn’t see things like crooked teeth because those teeth ran across six or seven kids. “Why didn’t she ever have them fixed?” Mona often asked, as if the answer resided in logic. She used the past tense because in our minds it was a given that it was too late for Ms. Tisch to bother with cosmetic dentistry. I never had an answer, but I imagined that Ms. Tisch had better things to do with her time.
Now, though, Mona and I felt terrible that more attention was being drawn to Ms. Tisch’s bad teeth, which wasn’t helped by the fact that she held the teacher’s version of the math book in front of her mouth when she talked, as if she could hide what was missing. For forty minutes, Mona and I shot each other glances carrying so much implicit dialogue that we didn’t have much to say when walking home from school. Per my brother, the rumor that someone had punched Ms. Tisch had already gone around the upper grades. I learned from him that her husband was a big-shot scientist at the GE plant, which made no sense. What about the too-short jacket sleeves and the exposed wrist bones? That seemed to me the very opposite of “big shot.”
When I told Mona about the scientist husband, she speculated that maybe he was testing an experiment at home and accidentally chipped Ms. Tisch’s tooth. This might have been remotely believable if not for what happened over the next weeks and months. It seemed like every five or six days, Ms. Tisch would have some other wound on her face or her neck or the visible part of her arms.
Soon everyone thought she was being beaten up by a mean husband. Most kids never thought an everyday teacher could be beaten up by a mean husband. They thought that only happened to women who looked like Barbie. Some kids refused to believe that Ms. Tisch was being actively beaten because she was so unattractive that she could never turn a man’s head, which was the reason women got beat up by their husbands. Some kids believed she was being beaten up by someone else and that her husband was too focused on his test tubes to notice.
For Mona and me, these theories were not worthy of attention. The real question was why Ms. Tisch was letting this happen to herself. It seemed that every day she held the teacher’s version of the math book in front of whatever part of her face had a bruise or a cut or a swollen red mark. It was especially painful to see a new wound appear before the older ones had time to fade.
Soon the entire class short of Mona and me had completely acclimated to Ms. Tisch’s predicament. They stopped talking about it amongst themselves. Most had never even mentioned it to their parents in the first place. My mother might have cared, but she had so many problems of her own I would never think of broaching the subject. When Mona had mentioned a black eye to her mother, Mrs. Sheehan quickly changed the subject.
Obviously the situation saddened Mona and me, but given Ms. Tisch’s personality, it was hard to interpret her pitiable series of wounds as suffering. She taught with the same vigor. She kept up with the “word to the wise.” She continued to point at raised hands with the chalk held between two fingers like an unlit cigarette. She never looked sad; I never once caught her staring into space in a way that showed her wishing for another life.
This went on for months and left me with a considerable amount of anxiety. I didn’t even know the word anxiety then, but I kept waiting for a pin to prick the balloon of dread. For me, that moment finally arrived on a nondescript day in May. It was lunchtime and we were in the convent parking lot, where the nuns consigned us to run around in a melee for twenty-five minutes before going back to our desks in sweat-soaked uniforms. That day, Mona and I and another girl were talking about the high school’s May Queen pageant, which was nothing more than a popularity and beauty contest. Any girl at the school could enter, but the judging mentality was seventeen-year-old cheerleader.
It was a huge joke that one of the Church girls was a May Queen candidate. I don’t think I even knew her name, but I remember that her gold, wireframe glasses had this extra-long piece of wire to accommodate the space between her eyes. The Church kid from my grade was named Alma. When anyone spoke in class, Alma Church would stare at that person in an uncomfortable way long after he or she had finished talking. The staring was simultaneously blank because of those black-pupiled eyes but also urgent: Alma Church seemed desperate to know how anyone put those words together. I could tell when she looked at me that she wasn’t thinking about what I’d just said, only that I had something to say and had followed through on that ambition.
When I realized that some popular girls were listening to our conversation, I must have raised my voice out of vanity. Why else would “Alma Church’s sister” have been broadcast so clearly? I remember everything being simultaneous—hearing my own voice above the fray and seeing Alma’s blank face turn toward me. I couldn’t fathom why I would do that—hurt this girl’s feelings when there was nothing whatsoever to be gained. Everyone knew why one of us would be mentioning “Alma Church’s sister”—to ridicule a member of a family that had been so chronically ridiculed for ages that older people didn’t even bother with them.
This moment was so dense with feeling that it seemed impossible that I alone could have caused it. Later, in high school, when we were studying the oracle and predestination in the Odyssey, I decided that this moment had been placed on the calendar at the time of my birth—mostly because of Ms. Tisch.
When she had playground duty, Ms. Tisch usually stood at the far corner of the parking lot talking to Mr. Dugan if he also had playground duty. Something made you aware of these two distant stick figures on the landscape. Their silhouettes reminded me of those stories of aliens surveilling corn crops. On that day, however, Ms. Tisch was standing just a few yards away. She didn’t say anything until I realized her proximity. I could see the simmering contempt in her eyes, though the words she delivered with characteristic equanimity: “I thought you were better than that.”
Shock engulfed me. I couldn’t help gaping at her face in the same way that Alma Church gaped at faces. Beneath her left eye, the skin that had been purple was now a yellowish green, and I stared at those colors like they were the northern lights. That distressed eye was a portal into something profound that I wasn’t ready for and unwilling to accept. I wanted to push it back with all my might. Rationalizations flooded into my brain—that I was entitled to make fun of the Churches because I was from practically the same kind of sketchy family and kids cruelly did the same to us. Or that it was just bad luck and coincidence—that I was completely innocent of malicious intent.
At St. Mary’s, I always tried to disguise the fact that I was what today would be called calculating. I felt that to appear calculating only advertised that you cared too much. I pretended to be so absorbed by intellectual and artistic pursuits that I didn’t notice all the cruelty that popularity unleashed on those with physical and social defects. But Ms. Tisch had seen through my act. With that wounded eye, she communicated that I was someone who hurt another person, and that’s not how The Wise behaved.
It wasn’t until later that night that I realized what was so devastating about Ms. Tisch’s rebuke. This was the first moment of my life where I was made aware of a presiding moral order that had nothing to do with Jesus. Ms. Tisch did not invoke Christianity; she invoked personal integrity. The way she said better made me feel l was being dismissed for good, forever.
After that day in May, things really did fall apart, starting at home. In June—three days after school let out—my father hit and killed a pedestrian while driving drunk, and our family was ostracized. Given the way my father had conducted his ne’er-do-well life, people thought he was just asking for something like this to happen. I used to rationalize that we were not that bad because nobody hit anybody, but after “the accident,” that philosophy lie in shreds.
Sixth grade was terrible. Mona left me by the wayside, which I didn’t blame her for at the time. Ms. Tisch had left town that summer because it was said her husband the scientist got a new job somewhere else. The Church kids were put into foster care and went to public school; the local paper said they were abused by both parents. I suffered through a year of not having friends, and in junior high I, too, went to public school, never experiencing the cachet of being in the big grades at St. Mary’s. I had to start over during the darkest dark ages of my life. I wish I could say I was above bad behavior, but I made a lot of the same mistakes.
I often wondered if Ms. Tisch could tell that Alma Church was being hit at home because she herself was being hit at home. It seemed that every teacher knew there was no way of reaching a girl like Alma Church academically; all you could do was take her out of harm’s way. And yet as far as I could see, not a single teacher cared that Ms. Tisch was at the very epicenter of harm, direly in need of being taken from home and placed with a foster husband. They, like me with my own family, just held their breath—and were glad when she was gone. §