‘The History Boys’ made me remember. As if I could ever forget.
She was tall and thin and smoked all the time. She had a familiar smell of perfume and cigarettes. Different choices than my mother, in tobacco and scent, but the combination still as redolent of comfort and depth and unfathomable sadness.
She was my English teacher. And we all adored her. Stood on our desks on our final matric day, saying ‘Oh Captain, My Captain’ in the flushed, melodramatic way our teenaged lives were lived.
Not many years after we left school she committed suicide. We heard through the grapevine, which as usual, provided little in the way of whys. And we wondered about our role in this shocking but somehow expected act. If we had even made a difference. Or could have.
I remember talking to an old friend when we heard. Discussing the rippling impact she has had on all our lives. My friend’s decision to enter the film industry. My vow to never teach. The love we both share for Shakespeare and Dylan Thomas, because of her. We wondered how much of her there still was in our lives, which still ring with echoes of that ‘carpe diem’ zeitgeist of the early 90s X generation.
We reminisced. Sharing memories of secret notes and the day we were banished from her class for being flippant about depression. Ironic.
And we tried to understand the bitter thread of sadness that ran through her. This embittered, smoky poetess whose jaded vision we revered and aped. Obvious now. A thread that we’d so misunderstood, in our callow, inexperienced youth, as a kind of funky, anti-establishment life view.
How our gauche and primitive passion must have mocked her. Wreathed in the sour smell of a thousand disappointments, she was unapologetically scathing of our dreams, large and hardly formed and pulsing with technicolour possibility.
She gave me that first uncomfortable glimpse of a life unexpected. A life lived to the rolling of the dice, not the fulfilling of dreams. One from which joy has nearly been crushed.
But she also gave of herself in great gouts of demanding. As an example, maybe, of what to watch out for when we left the safety of school. She never taught us in a rote, mechanical way. She dug and poked and then praised us lavishly when we veered into the unknown, the untexted realm of genuine connection with whatever we were studying at the time. She would not allow mediocrity and unoriginal thought. Was obviously bored with it. She scorned our rabidly starlit, hormonal poetry. She pushed us so far beyond ourselves we changed irreparably.
But we never took her seriously. Beyond the high emotion, the debates and repartee that were contained in those classroom walls. We never imagined that her appealing, bohemian life was anything but. That the weight of children and responsibility and the death of hope would eventually snuff her gorgeous life out.
And I wonder if she knew. If her children know. How much she meant to me, to us. How, even now, some of the choices I make vibrate with her rasping cadence. How much of what I am was shaped in the shadow of her.
I loved her. I miss her.
Before she took her life, I had occasion to go back. I caught her during classroom break and we shared a cigarette together. I felt, fleetingly, her equal. She was buoyed up by the possibility of a new romance.
I wish that I’d told her then.