I went to high school a long time ago, but I still remember Miss McNuttle.
She taught Latin, both Latin I and Latin II, and Senior Honors English. Miss McNuttle was the prototypical spinster, back in those days when there still were spinsters: thick rimmed glasses, gray hair back in a bun, hospital shoes. We used to joke that she was a nun reject–that she was so tough the nuns wouldn’t let her teach in their schools.
She was so tough she could drive our star quarterback to tears with just one look–that look, you know the one. She was the only one of our teachers that you didn’t talk back to, that you addressed with her complete title, Miss McNuttle. You didn’t pile out the door when the bell rang, you sat there until she dismissed you.
So it was with much trepidation that I signed up for her class my senior year. Actually I was planning on skating that last year, but my guidance counselor flagged my schedule and called me on the carpet for taking home ec, art, study hall and bonehead English. I can still see that stubby pencil with the smeared eraser as she worked furiously to produce a schedule that my parents–and she–could live with.
That meant me and Miss McNuttle finally met. I’d taken three years of Spanish–no Latin for me!–but I knew her reputation. She didn’t disappoint. That year we learned how to diagram sentences, how to do word analogies. We struggled through not one but two Shakespeare plays and wrote countless essays that were carefully graded in red and required to be resubmitted.
But the crowning glory was public speaking. She said that every young well-educated woman or gentlemen should be able to speak in front of others. We wouldn’t be passing her class until we knew how to do it. Some classmates resorted to ditching on the days we had to emote. Others chose the quickest way out, stammering red-faced through the ordeal.
One assignment was to memorize a famous public speech and give it to the class without notes. Some of my classmates’ siblings had had Miss McNuttle in previous years, and they clued us in: the best speech to give was the Gettysburg Address–272 words, less than two minutes of agony if you talked fast.
The noon before we all had to go before the implacable judge we skipped lunch and traipsed out together to the track in-field grass, sat there coaching each other, prompting when we got to word 253 and were absolutely stuck. We arrived at class that day in a unit and nailed it! Twenty-seven renditions of “Four-score and…”, one after another.
We thought we were off the hook, but Miss McNuttle had another assignment waiting for us. We now had to give a five minute speech demonstrating how to do something. What do teenagers demonstrate that would be fit to display in front of this teacher? We put our heads together and came up with a reasonable list: tying fishing flies, ironing a shirt, making a Christmas tree ornament (that was me).
We arrived at class that day in a buzz, props at the ready in paper sacks at the side of our desks. But Miss McNuttle, waiting until the last straggler breezed through the door, had a surprise waiting for us.
She announced that it was not fair to ask us to do something she would not do herself; therefore she would demonstrate how to get ready for bed. We all leaned back in our chairs, welcoming the reprieve, however short.
First she took off her glasses. Then she peered in an imaginary mirror and brushed her teeth. So far, so good. Then she pantomimed taking off her shoes, one by one, unlacing them and putting them side by imaginary side. The blouse was next, unbuttoning one imaginary button after another. The blouse must have been long-sleeved, for she tugged a bit getting the last bit of imaginary fabric over her wrist.
Unzipped and stepped out of her imaginary skirt. Stopped a heartsbreath and smiled at us. Unhooked her imaginary nylons one by one from the girdle, smoothed them and lay them on the imaginary bed next to her blouse and skirt. Tugged and tugged at the girdle and finally shimmied out of it, tossed it on the imaginary pile. Paused another minute, smiled again, and reached behind her. She unhooked that bra–that bra so real we all could see in, even though it wasn’t there.
Smile at us all one final time, took a bow, and walked out the room. We sat in stunned silence. Where had she been all our lives? When Miss McNuttle returned a few minutes later, we were still in shock.
This woman, this mild, meek spinster explained that she once trod the boards, been a Broadway star “in her youth”. She affixed her black-rimmed glasses firmly back her nose and looked at us, making eye contact with every person in the room.
“Now,” she said, “Let me see you do your demonstrations. Shouldn’t be hard. I’ve shown you how.”