I didn’t know what to call the stew of terror, shame, longing, ambition, and surrender that burbled through me on day one of sixth grade, when alphabetical necessity had placed my desk directly under the cliff of her multiple chins.
But we already knew what to call her. The name written in block letters on the board said Miss Hudgins, but in our lingo—and, we felt sure, the universe’s true and secret tongue—she was only Brillo.
She’d been at the Tufts School in South Medford since FDR’s second term, and we had inherited the nickname as a kind of talisman from the dark, backward and abysm of student loathing, in honor of the wreath of steel wool that bristled around her head like the Nazi infantry helmets we saw in World War II movies.
Everything about her was gray. Small, slate eyes were buried deep in the well-done steak of a face that seemed too ashen and jowelled ever to lift into mirth. Her burlappy dresses were like the drapes at the Dello Russo funeral home, outfits often festooned with charcoal buttons the size of Ring Dings. She was thick as a bear. The saber-like edge of her low alto—she was more of a baritone, in truth—struck fear into the hearts of even the street-toughest of her charges.
It took only a few days to teach us that in Brillo’s world all the most dismal trains of education would run on time. Rote drilling and an irritable strictness were the cornerstones of her pedagogy, with an occasional flourish of ridicule.
“I’m starting to think these pupils are stupid,” she once said, appealing to some absent authority, as we slumped in silence before some question about Johnny Tremaine. Once, reading aloud from a spelling test, I pronounced the word “spatula” spah-TOOL-ah and she lowered the boom over her glasses. “The whole world is not Italian,” she said, and a couple of girls behind me snickered. And then there was the morning Michael Marcarelli threw up at his seat, perhaps from the half-pint carton of nearly room temperature milk we bought for fifteen cents at lunch every day and which, in that era before expiration dates, often tasted a tick or two past its prime. Brillo looked down with an aggrieved expression at the desktop covered with barf. “I see that some of us are not quite house broken,” she said. Student scuttlebutt told of the time she had spit in the face of Tommy Alonardo, now a huge seventh grader, when he had called another kid a fugginape in class.
She had made of our flat greater Boston accent a pretentious, pseudo-British tremolo—in South Medford we were unfamiliar with the concept of “Brahmin,” though her name and her accent strongly suggested she wasn’t from here. Whenever we (finally!) lined up correctly for recess or group trips to the basement (her euphemism for the bathroom), she opened the vowels of command like Mountbatten: You may pahhss, clahhss.
In the classroom, she had stationed her desk under the windows behind us and to our left, the better to monitor all whispers, passed notes, shy glances, false bodily functions, and other distracting transgressions.
From my front row seat, especially, every lesson was Attack of the Fifty Foot Teacher. Her habitual classroom posture was to tuck one menacing forearm under her breasts—whether to project them as a threat or prevent them from sliding all the way to the floor was an object of playground debate—and, with the free hand, hector us with a yard-long wooden pointer she could crack impressively against a variety of surfaces to regain our perpetually slack attention. Years later, when I first read Great Expectations and Dickens’ description of Tickler—the switch with which Pip’s severe older sister “brings him up by hand”—my memory immediately brought back the sight and sound of Brillo’s fearful dowel.
Not that she ever touched us with it. She didn’t have to.
Instead, thrusting it impatiently against a defenseless map, she propounded at length the domino theory of American foreign policy, beating into our twenty-seven gaping faces with the subtlety of a Khruschevian shoe-bang exactly why we were in Vietnam and MUST continue fighting there. She thrust at Australia, which seemed to cower under the rubber tip of her pointer like a lost piglet. “We don’t want communism THE-YAH,” she barked, and on we went to the Greek myths. I didn’t get it. How would communism, which was apparently some kind of Russian and Chinese mental illness, but highly communicable (hence, I thought, the name), get onto this big island, and, once there, what was bad about having it surrounded on all sides by water and a coral reef heavily populated, as I knew from my fifth-grade oceanography project, with man-eating sharks? That seemed like good containment to me. Though we didn’t understand a thing, we quaked in agreement. And so, with the terrorized awe of the orthodox, none dared utter aloud within the temple of her classroom the dark magic of that nickname.
From our second-floor classroom three sets of twelve-over-twelve windows looked down on a narrow lawn behind the chain-link fence that separated us from the sidewalk of Medford Street, the main drag. One fall afternoon in sixth grade, with the windows open to the heat of what, in those innocent days, we called Indian summer, our math concentration melting in runnels down the roots of our hair—there was not so much as a fan in Brillo’s room, an absence she justified by explaining how distracting the whir of such a machine could be on young minds mastering sentence diagrams—we heard seventh graders, her recent graduates, trailing loudly home from Lincoln Junior High, which was a few blocks away on Harvard Street. One of the many advantages of aging up was the earlier dismissal time.
I can’t remember what we were doing, but I do remember when the voices outside floated up from the street and settled on me like an unwelcome hand on the back of the neck. Gradually, the discord congealed into a unison jeer. “BRILLO! BRILLO!! HEY BRIIIILLOOOOOOO!!!”
The classroom was sucked into silence, stiller even than when Brillo would glare at our hopeless fumbles with fractions. I felt, more than heard, a thick rustle of fabric behind me. She strode forward, her back to the class, Kong among the circling airplanes. She reached up to take the long pole that hung by the window, seven feet of polished red oak with a brass head shaped, I always thought, like an upside-down map of Italy, a tool even the tallest teachers needed to reach the upper sash of the windows, the top of which, when closed, was a good ten feet above the floor.
We kept our heads down, pretending to be absorbed in our own work while actually waiting, through the fisheye lens childhood provides for detecting adult foible, to see what would come next. It seemed perfectly plausible she would stomp down into the street twirling the pole like a spinster version of the Kung Fu masters newly popular on TV and scatter the baboons like bowling pins, or use it as a medieval jousting lance to skewer them, or, with a primitive guttural cry, hurl it from the window like a javelin. Instead, though it was a hot afternoon, she scraped upward to dig at the topmost sash with the male ferrule, which slid with a click into its brass keyhole-shaped notch. Without undue haste, she pushed it closed and did the same with the two other sets of windows. Then, re-hanging the pole and reaching up empty handed over her head, she pulled the bottom sets of the three panes shut with both hands.
At the last window, the one closest to me, she stretched on tiptoe from her thick wrists down to the sturdy black shoes—the same kind our nuns at St. Clements wore during CCD classes—and the effort exposed a dark half moon of sweat under the left arm of her short sleeved blouse. The impressive wattle below her biceps swung like a rope bridge in a gale, and memory, its full Freudian camera rolling, seems to provide—though it can’t have been true—a view down the tunnel of that sleeve into the forbidden shadows of the armpit itself, where a patch of hair furled like an anemone. Our obsession with what we referred to only as B.O. offered more engaging and acceptable sub-plot possibilities, though no scent of anything, other than the usual classroom bouquet of mucilage and our own warm-weather stenches, reached my row; certainly before this none of us had gotten close enough to her to establish a baseline from which any current aroma might or might not depart. But something else compelled our larger fascination when she finished enclosing us in what was now becoming the steaming greenhouse of the room and turned again toward her desk.
Hearing the last window thud shut, we lifted our heads almost against our will, like a herd of antelope at the watering hole who’ve felt a tremor. Though she had a grip on herself tighter than any she’d had on the pole, I—we all—saw through it. As the cries outside continued, muted but not silenced through the closed windows, the meaty planes of her face turned to stone, like the gorgon we were reading about in Edith Hamilton, whose own evil power was used ironically against her. But the poetic justice of it did not mitigate or explain the flush at the back of my neck that drove my eyes again to my desk, where the lined paper stared back with blank accusation, turning me, too, to stone.
The catcall persisted day after day. A couple of classmates had siblings at “The Lincoln,” and perhaps those elders, receiving communiques from their younger spies in enemy territory, received daily intelligence that their ordnance was finding its target. In any case, they had enough vicious endurance to drive on through the fall, a siege cancelled only, like my Little League games, on account of rain.
One day after dismissal sometime later, I forgot my baseball glove behind the folding wooden doors at the back of the room where we kept coats, boots, hats, and other gear “out of distraction’s way,” as Brillo demanded, all year round. Returning to the classroom, I found her bent Talmudic-ally over the stacks of numbing busywork we had slogged through that day. The large red brick building of Tufts School—called Curtis Tufts these days—seemed to me part cathedral and part prison, quiet after school except for the echo of the janitor pushing his bucket through the halls and the hush of light traffic outside on Medford Street, where a couple of throttled maples unconvincingly impersonated the postcard image of New England autumn. In my mind’s nose I can still smell the newly mopped floors that reeked of school disinfectant, an odor of artificial pine, unctuous and suffocating.
I slunk through the classroom door, hoping to ghost in and out unremarked, if not unnoticed. As the door of the back closet creaked under my touch, Brillo looked up with a reptilian gaze over her glasses. Her eyes, glazed with reading, seemed to take a moment to refocus. Then, as if she had been expecting me, she peeled off her glasses, which fell to her chest on their chain, and indicated the chair near her desk with the slightest impatient nod. The seat seemed to yawn in its emptiness and proximity to her, as I imagine the electric chair looks to convicts. Obedience, fear, and confusion beetled through me. I couldn’t read the gesture and had no previous evidence to suppose I could possibly be the object, or victim, of any kind of invitation. I did already know that, in Brillo’s universe, to be slovenly enough to forget an important article was a steep moral failure. I had just decided to sprint gloveless back to the park when into my paralysis her voice rang like the school bell. “Sit, child!”
She never addressed us by name. It was always “Miss,” or “Mister,” or—as if it were somehow distasteful to call attention to budding sexuality by distinguishing us by gender—simply “Child.” Patti Gulino said this was because she didn’t know our names. I thought it likely she just didn’t care, which was not quite the same. In any case, it was still early in the term. Patti’s mother had been in Brillo’s class herself in sixth grade—“a thousand years ago,” according to Mrs. Gulino—and said maybe Miss Hudgins had been teaching so long all the names ran together and so, like a good teacher, she probably just didn’t want to make a mistake. Mrs. Gulino also suggested that many of the teachers, particularly the older ones, had never quite recovered from the assassination of the president four years ago. This was difficult for us to comprehend, since that November day hadn’t made any lasting impact on us second graders, and it was hard to imagine anything derailing the classroom locomotive that was Brillo or the dull carriage of school obligations. It was true that at odd moments when they were together a shaken look sometimes came over grown ups and they suddenly talked in low voices, but I always attributed this, even then, to all the liquor.
One eye still on her papers, Brillo poured some lukewarm orange juice out of a quart carton into a paper cup. I vaguely understood this was intended for me, but I did not move. My joints felt like tin. Then, without a word, she opened the square top of the small brown bakery box she occasionally kept on her desk.
This box—or rather, it’s larger cousin-—was one of the talismanic objects of my childhood, tied with fine red-and-white-dotted string from the big conical spool at Lindell’s bakery in Ball Square in Somerville, wrapped twice in quadrants around the box and knotted expertly on top into some kind of an unsolvable triple bow by one or another of the Lindells. Sunday mornings it arrived with magic regularity on the kitchen table where my mother cut the string with a satisfying click of scissors and revealed an assortment of doughnuts and the apple-butter danish my father favored. Inside Brillo’s box, as she lifted the top, I saw two of the coconut crullers my brother and I cherished above all others and sometimes fought over.
“No thank you,” I said. Polite demurral was the obligatory first response to any invitations by strangers or friends’ parents to eat. I judged, using my family’s economic struggles and my own bottomless hunger as a guide, that all hosts secretly wished to keep the baloney sandwich, the provolone, the chocolates for themselves. Part of the dance was that the offer (if it was genuine, as it sometimes was) would be made again and again.
Brillo shrugged and closed the box.
In my imagination, a confetti of shaved coconut fell in a ticker tape parade on a fleet of departing crullers driving like Cadillacs into the distance.
“You like to read,” said Brillo. It was not a question, so I said nothing. Brillo rarely asked questions, unless she suspected you would not know the answer. Otherwise, she made bold statements and challenged you to contradict or disagree. In any case, the unstated rule of my home was to speak to adults only when asked a direct question. The last thing you wanted was to call any attention to yourself—either to reveal your sinfully lazy position stretched on a bed with Sherlock Holmes adventures and thus be summoned down cellar to do something constructive—or to be once again the subject of my father’s favorite refrain from his Air Force days: “It is better to be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.”
But it was certainly true that my book reports were eager and copious.
“You are not in the Arrow Book Club,” she said. This was true. The Arrow Book Club was a subscription service that delivered a monthly dose of Conrad Richter, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Walter Farley, and other enriching classics to grade schoolers. My father, who had been laid off his job as a bus driver for the MBTA, held to a strict budget: books, never; baseball gloves, once a season. I was intended to be a great shortstop. What’s the library for? my father wanted to know.
“You have books at home,” pursued Brillo. This was much less true; beside my bed I had a handful of paperbacks rescued from library discards: the Conan Doyle, an abridged Gulliver’s Travels, Tom Sawyer, The Duke Decides by John R. Tunis. For entertainment in my house we confined ourselves to shouting at the television during Red Sox games (with an occasional physical attack on the screen, in my father’s case) and beating the lights out of each other. But it sounded enough like a question that I shook my head and discovered a thread of voice in my throat.
“I go to the library.” After the batter’s box, the one-room low-ceilinged branch library adjacent to the junior high was the place in the world I felt most at home.
“You are reading something now.”
I nodded. Brillo leveled her jowls at me, waiting.
“Lust for Life,” I said. “By Irving Stone. It’s about an artist.” To give the impression I was reading it for the first time was disingenuous. I was on my third pass through the book and now often opened it at random to revisit and memorize favorite passages.
Brillo tilted her chin to the ceiling. “Yes, I know. A lurid and sentimental work,” she humphed. I had the impression she said this more to herself than me and, though I suspected it was an insult, I had only the vaguest idea what it meant and so could not mount any defense of my favorite book.
She leaned back a little and sighed deeply. “You like art,” she said. She pointed to the wall where part of the ornithology project Willie Wunderlich and I had collaborated on was tacked up. “Bring me your cardinal,” she said.
She lifted her glasses from their chain and held the drawing in one hand at arm’s length. I had never actually seen a live cardinal; I was pretty sure they avoided Medford, for safety and perhaps aesthetic reasons. My model had come from a photograph in a magazine. “The proportions are all wrong,” she said, wrinkling her nose as if smelling something faintly unpleasant. “The beak, the crest. It’s not a parrot, child.”
I sat quietly. “But,” she went on appraisingly, “the line shows promise. There’s life in it.”
I didn’t know what to make of this. In my experience, promises, as my father often announced, were made to be broken.
“You like novels,” she continued.
I was still thinking about Irving Stone. “I like books about real things.” What I responded to in books like Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea was not the magic, or the mystery, or the adventure, but the fact that the classroom encyclopedia revealed that the narwhal was real and not a convenience of Jules Verne’s imagination.
Miss Hudgins sat still and looked at me. I waited to be dismissed. Then she reached down to the gray canvas bag she carried on her shoulder to school and placed on the same little stool next to her desk every day. We had often wondered at its contents—a bullwhip, cigars, a blonde wig?—but dared not even violate its orbit, let alone attempt a peek into its depths. Now she dug in it briefly and fished out a book.
“You haven’t seen this,” she asserted.
I turned it over in my hands. She was of course correct, but in ways even she may not have understood. In South Medford, in those days, any clothbound book in its pristine dust jacket was as rare as color television. (The library either ditched the dust jackets or smothered books in an arid, industrial plastic, sometimes tore out endpapers and violated pages with a maniacal barrage of stamps, labels, paste, tape, and card pockets.) The ivory finish of the paper jacket was as smooth and welcome under my fingertips as the shiny wood of a new baseball bat. Large, black letters on the cover read In Cold Blood. For a moment I thought it was a guide to achieving the state of being Miss Hudgins approved of and modeled every day for us. There was no other design but the letters and a muted rose-at-the-end-of-a-needle graphic I didn’t understand in the upper right corner. The author’s name was printed below in red, the same size as the title: Truman Capote.
“It’s a new kind of book,” she said. “Read it and tell me what you think.”
Obediently, I opened to page one.
“Not NOW,” she huffed. I must have looked confused. “Take it with you,” she ordered and returned her attention to her papers. Only libraries, in my experience, lent books. After quite a long pause I understood our meeting to be over. I grabbed my glove from the closet, folded the book in the glove where the ball would go, and trailed away out to the park.
As fall turned to winter I occasionally found myself after school discovering a reason to return to the classroom to get something out of my desk and then staying—briefly at first, and then for slightly longer. In these further interviews Miss Hudgins talked about books or elaborated on her theories about Southeast Asia. “The Russians are not like us, you know. The Chinese … ” When I said I had liked In Cold Blood and offered to return it (I had read it secretly in my room, fascinated and terrified), she said I should keep it. She herself had “reservations,” about it. “I approve of his methods, but not his goal,” she said, another of her incomprehensible pronouncements. In her turn, keeping her big face neutral, she would listen to my inarticulate enthusiasms about batting averages or the strange charge I felt when I looked at van Gogh landscapes. We never talked about family, certainly not hers and even more certainly not mine—for that too, the alcohol and the abuse, indeed for any “problem,” there was no vocabulary. It was 1967 in South Medford, Massachusetts.
Sometimes when I came in she would hand me a book across the desk—The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, or Rembrandt: The Complete Etchings—and for fifteen minutes or so she would grade papers and I would turn pages in ambiguous silence. Occasionally the principal, Miss Mack, whose skin was as rubbery as a deflated balloon, would appear and they would fence over some “administrivia.” One day, sometime in early winter, when Brillo opened the Lindell’s box, I jumped forward, snagged a doughnut, and retreated like a timid pigeon. On my walk home through the snow, the taste of the coconut, that sweet ash, still hung around my lips.
In class that year, after Willie Wunderlich and I had already cruised through our math book, whenever yet another lesson on fractions began, Brillo shooed us crossly away to a far corner to read A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court or Kon Tiki. This was what today might be called “gifted and talented enrichment,” but these impatient dismissals and meetings were part of my first recognition—in or out of my family—that there were worthwhile abilities that did not involve running, throwing, jumping, or hitting something or someone.
My classmates didn’t seem to know about my ambivalent little master classes with Brillo after school. To “stay after,” as it was called, signified only punishment. I certainly didn’t let on, and in my mind I was not “staying after” but “going back.” Perhaps she knew all the ways her reputation might compromise mine among my soon-to-be-Brillo-shouting colleagues. I don’t know whether she intuitively understood, meeting my brutish father and fawning mother on Fall School Night, how complicated things were for me at home—whether she was trying consciously to provide refuge, or whether she herself just had nowhere very interesting to go. By so many other names goes love.
In spring, when the good weather returned, so did the voices crashing like Hitchcock seagulls through the window. Every afternoon, something nameless inside me was pierced and wilted, though it turned out to be disappointingly easy to maintain a poker face. As everyone knew, Brillo was to be feared and despised, and that was that.
At the end of sixth grade at Tufts School there was no ceremony, no Hollywood last-day hugs, no gifts and cards from grateful parents for nurturing etc. etc. The concept of nurture, if not the word itself, was beyond my parents’ comprehension, and in truth it would be difficult to see how it applied to Miss Hudgin’s dealings with us. The last day we lined up as usual, waited for the familiar pedantic tones we would happily never again endure in this lifetime, and sprinted screaming with release out into the hall and down the stairs to the street below, inmates paroled. A couple of the bolder delinquents even ventured their own first giddy “BRILLO!” and then ran like hell.
I never saw her again. I’m a teacher myself now, and, like many teachers, especially at the beginnings and endings of the school year, I’m often thrown back on the memories of my own schooling. A few months ago I phoned the superintendent’s office in Medford to find some record of her, a family, a first name, even. An assistant, sounding burdened, promised to look into it.
That next fall I went on to The Lincoln. The route home took me and many others up Medford Street past the windows of Tufts School. Certainly that imposing ursine form inside the second-story classroom must have been visible from the sidewalk. If I ever peeked up, I remember only a bright fluorescence, sometimes the shades half lowered, and a few bright squares of paper stuck to the window panes—perhaps a drawing of a bird by some new trembling novitiate. And I know that on warm fall and spring afternoons, I sped with my head down past the school’s open windows, trying unsuccessfully to duck the hail of BRILLO!s that rose and fell around me like arrows. In my rush I must have looked, to anyone glancing down from those windows, like one of the guilty.
She was neither a wonderful woman, Brillo, nor a particularly good teacher, even by the standards of those days: way too rigid, impatient, terrifying, and condescending. Nor was she a heroic spirit against the odds, all that Dead Poet Society romanticism; she was just, I think now, a lonely burn-out close to retirement going a half-step beyond the bounds of her job, for her own obscure and perhaps unexamined reasons, to be nice to some kid—to play a favorite, in truth, another of her faults as a teacher. And yet all these years later, though I finally have this gift for her, I find, with shame and sadness, there is nowhere to send it.