Mrs. Male taught me eighth-grade science during her last year of teaching. Her bulletin boards were covered with pictures of lighthouses and lobsters from Maine where she planned to retire. She had taught all three of my older siblings. Her husband, Father Male, was an Episcopalian priest, so every one called her Mother Male. However, this tall, stocky woman with short hair, who almost always wore a lab coat, never struck me as maternal, but rather as a clever teacher who made learning fun.
Oddly, I don’t remember any labs in Mother Male’s science class—we must have had some, but I do remember dancing around her classroom in a mamba line. Alternating which hands we raised, we sang repeatedly the classification levels of the scientific kingdoms: There’s phylum, class, order, family, genus, species. Go! Phylum, class, order . . . . Another day, we circled the room singing twice as fast the divisions of the Metric system: deci, centi, milli, deci, centi, milli. More than thirty years later, I sing these songs as I dance around my English students, hoping to convince them of the power of repetitive rhythm as a mnemonic device for remembering material for a test.
When I introduce Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack to American literature students, I tell them of Mother Male and her book of adages. A renaissance person like Franklin, Mrs. Male enjoyed collecting short proverbs or aphoristic statements that cleverly express a general truth in a sentence or two using simple words, grammatical parallelism, and word play. I tell my students I learned the word adage from my science teacher.
I tell another story of Mother Male to my students when I’m teaching rhyme. I tell my students that rhyme makes poems memorable. “I can only recite one of my own poems. It’s one of my first. I wrote it when I once got a detention,” I begin, “for talking.” When this makes them laugh, I stare at them in mocking disbelief. “Yes, I was quite the talker in class until the day Mother Male gave me detention for asking for a piece of paper. I learned not to mess with teachers that day.”
Since most of us were exercising our jaws while talking to our classmates instead of exercising our brains and hands to complete the mimeographed worksheets she had passed out, Mother Male declared martial law, rapping her meter stick against the chalk tray. Mouths closed and pencils began to scratch papers around the room.
I had already rewritten a research report for Mother Male because my writing was illegible. My handwriting was indeed notoriously bad. I had gone to pull out sessions for reading and writing from Kindergarten through the fourth grade. I decided I better rewrite the answers to the worksheet on a separate sheet of paper before Mother Male gave me the ultimatum: copy it over or get a zero. I patted the arm of my classmate Steve, whose mother was our music teacher: “Do you have any paper?” Before he could answer, Mother Male told me I had detention.
I don’t know whether I yet knew the expression righteous indignation, but I knew I had been wronged and my life was in danger. I would have to stay after school, write an essay, take the late bus home, and walk an extra mile home straight past the high school neighbor who thought my butt was a practice target for his BB gun. At that end of that peril, I would face my parents. Since I had never had a detention before, I had no idea what they would do.
I don’t remember what I wrote in my detention essay except the anger that came out in verse:
Words of the Witch
Just one peepand the Devil will reap,
keeping your soulas the toll.
You may screamtill you hit a beam,
but you will still steamtill you’re a thick cream.
Then your head will be spreadon a thick piece of bread,
and you will be crunchilymunched for lunch.
I don’t remember Mother Male ever talking to me about my essay, but my English teacher talked to me about my poem. I often wonder what words they shared about me in the teachers’ room that day when they read my essay. I imagine Mrs. Male’s maternal instincts could have been seen as clearly as her laugh must have been heard. She was clearly not a witch, but she discerned the future and saw me as a poet. She taught me much of the spell-power of words.