Attachment Disorder: A Brief History of “Fierce Attachments” to Teachers and Fiction
Flannery O’Connor and Faulkner could do this story justice, so just pretend you’re in their hands.
Our story begins in the early 60s, and I’m suddenly in college. I’m seventeen, set loose from a small town in the Adirondacks, and a high school legendary for what it lacked and what it had in abundance. It lacked a guidance counselor and college-prep courses, but it had multitudes of old, blue-haired ladies whose faces were “as broad and innocent as a cabbage,” and who taught typing, home economics, accounting, and business arithmetic. The typing teacher, Mrs. Bowen, had a missing digit, and when we tried to cheat by looking under the metal hood she placed over our typewriters, she’d drive the stump of her index finger into our necks.
Latin and French were offered occasionally, but never in a reliable sequence. The foreign language teacher was Mrs. Shea, a tall, dignified widow who’d fallen on hard times, and had to support two daughters and a drinking habit. She tried to prepare me for the New York State Regents’ Exam by tutoring me after school in her car. While I conjugated verbs, Mrs. Shea sipped whiskey from a perfume bottle, smoked cigarettes, and muttered French phrases.
Thirty-three kids were in my senior class, most of them the sons and daughters of workers at the paper mill, the enterprise responsible for the Technicolor river that ran through town. Other townsfolk had to travel to Dannemora to work at the state prison, or try to find odd jobs in a town devoted to oddity.
Teachers were not eager to come to our town, unless something catastrophic landed them there, like Mrs. Shea. It’d be pretty to think that she saw something in me, some spark, or potential, to explain why she chose to tutor me for free in her car. Something, or a combination of things, led me to her, and also to college.
As I said, we didn’t have a guidance counselor, but during my junior year, Ned Hoey, the all-purpose administrator, and science and phys-ed teacher, assumed the role of guidance counselor, and asked me one day about my plans.
“I’m going to be an actress. I’m going to go to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City.”
He told me to take algebra, physics, and French, “Just to be on the safe side.”
That year we had an English teacher, Addison Wight, a sad, damaged man, always dressed in a threadbare tweed suit tapestried with chalk dust and cigarette ashes, another drinker who’d ended up in Au Sable Forks as a last resort. He tried to teach us Shakespeare. The only stuff we’d read before was Hot Rod and a peculiar story told through the point of view of a snake.
I won a NY State Regents’ Scholarship my senior year, with a proviso that I must attend a state school. My mother assumed all along that I was destined to be a ward of the state, an inmate at Dannemora, and I still had that goal of becoming an actress, so I delayed applying to college, and then in September said, “I’m going.”
We drove to Cortland, and missed out on orientation, so we hauled my stuff to the dorm. The authorities assigned me to the boys’ dorm, long before co-ed habitation and conjugal privileges, and my roommate said, “Hey, there’s been a mistake. You don’t belong here.”
The first snafu was followed by many others, including my not meeting up with an advisor. That’s how I ended up with Lester Hurt, another man in tweed, but with a Southern accent and an attitude, something that bespoke of old-world manners and a legendary impatience with rubes. He signed me up for the usual spate of freshman courses, despite my avowal that I wanted to specialize in dramatic arts.
I didn’t buy the books required for any of the courses except Lester Hurt’s, and instead of attending classes, I hopped buses to Syracuse and Ithaca to watch movies and plays, returning to campus to gawk at library picture books of movie stars and freaks, and every volume of Theatre World to read about Broadway and off-Broadway plays. I landed roles in a couple of Albee and Ionesco plays, and also landed on academic and social probation, the latter for not wearing dresses at Sunday teas and brunches, and for having contraband in my dorm room–beer, discovered during furtive room checks.
“Miss Becker, I am sorely disappointed in you,” Lester Hurt said, and gave me a choice. I could drop out, and spare everyone a load of trouble, or I could take dummy math, botany, and psychology in the summer, but also take any English courses I desired my sophomore year to prove that I deserved to be in college. I took his course in the Bible as Literature and other courses from him that allowed me to read Melville and Faulkner.
He was considered the most demanding teacher on campus, notorious for giving quizzes with one question worth 100 points. In the Bible course, the question pertained to the exact number of cubits of Noah’s ark, and an explanation of what cubits meant. With Faulkner, the question involved some arcane thing in The Sound and the Fury.
I think that Lester Hurt liked my stupid wonder at what writers did. I was doing just fine in his courses, and planned to write a spectacular paper on Faulkner, but then one day someone entered the classroom, and announced that Professor Hurt had died on his way to school—a cerebral hemorrhage.
Social probation meant that I was forbidden to leave campus. I hitchhiked to Homer to attend Lester Hurt’s graveside service. The Dean of Women picked me up. I figured it was curtains for me for my flagrant violation of the rules, but she treated me like a companion, not a criminal.
He was buried in a pine box. It was springtime, and I endowed the setting with all things Southern—lush trees drooping and panting in the humidity, cicadas drumming in the field, and the widow, regal and sophisticated, swathed in a shimmery orchid dress, and smelling of verbena. I was infatuated with connections and associations, and still am, always believing that such emotions are authorized because I’ve stepped into a story or novel, and while this might sound like the product of a girl’s imagination, I know that I saw, next to Lester Hurt’s un-manicured plot, a neighboring tombstone that said Faulkner. I even presumed to approach Mrs. Hurt, uncertain of what to say, except, “I liked him. I respected him. He saved me.”
She told me he’d talked about me, even had one of my papers and the vial of bull semen I’d given him. I can’t recall why I chose bull semen as a gift, maybe because of a connection with something we’d read in class that set me on my way, leaving campus, breaking the rules, to meet with a farmer to get sperm.
I like to think it’s because Lester Hurt handed me a life, and through a complicated genealogy, we were kin, and my forebears (Mrs. Shea, Mr. Wight) and all the people in the books I read, and all the writers were connected.
I still have my Modern Library collection of Faulkner’s stories. I paid $2.45 for it, and I marked passages that affected me and that I needed to pay attention to for one of Lester Hurt’s quizzes. His voice and Faulkner’s are still in my head, telling me about “verities,” “immutable progression,” “the old fierce pull of blood,” “the human heart in conflict with itself,” and how we’re meant “not only to endure, but to prevail.”
Now we come to a dog-eared page of “The Bear” that must’ve struck me in 1963 as being noteworthy:
So he should have hated and feared Lion. Yet he did not. It seemed to him that there was a fatality in it. It seemed to him that something, he didn’t know what, was beginning; had already begun. It was like the last act on a set stage. It was the beginning of the end of something, he didn’t know what except that he would not grieve. He would be humble and proud that he had been found worthy to be a part of it too or even just to see it too.