Here's to Education!
Hayes B. Jacobs lives in New York City and is director of the New School Writing Workshops.
A news story quoted a Harvard University psychiatrist to the effect that children should be taught in school how to drink alcoholic beverages. This calls to mind a typical day in the teaching life of Miss Tuckerman:
Her day’s chores seemed endless, and Miss Tuckerman had doubts that she could get through the remaining hour or two. She brushed the chalk dust from the sleeves of her navy wool suit, and glanced down sadly at the stains on what that morning had been a crisply starched white blouse but was now a limp mass of blurry polka dots — scotch and bourbon dots mostly, with a sprinkling of maraschino and bitters. What was happening to her? Last night when she got home she’d found a stuffed olive in her bra. A few more weeks in this assignment (Remedial Drinking, Grades I-VI‚ Incl.) and she would have to replace her entire wardrobe.
All this was quite new to her; she’d been brought up by parents dedicated to temperance‚ and in her fifty-eight years had never touched a drop until last July. It was a question of conforming or else; of losing her license or wetting her whistle. She had spent a miserably hot Cambridge, Massachusetts, summer taking training for special certification and had got high marks, even in the most difficult courses, such as Survey of Midwest Distilleries, 1890—1917, Bar Management in the Primary Grades, Scoring the Standard Pouilly-Fuissé Achievement Test, and a heady seminar, Bocks, Ales, Porters, and Stouts: Their Use and Abuse in the Springfield Preschool Experiment. Having drunk deep from this fascinating new well of knowledge, she knew her material, although sometimes she felt she’d absorbed everything too fast. She was reasonably sure of her methods, having distilled out only the best from some rather obscure and vaporous lectures. She approached each young student as an individual, whose drinking potential, though perhaps hidden, was always right there for the skilled pedagogue to tap. But the daily routine! It siphoned off so much of her energy; the pace was so dizzying, the responsibility so staggering.
She took off her bifocals and wiped them, though they didn’t need it; things still appeared bleary. She flinched, hearing the crunching, crumbling sounds as she walked around her desk. The Fritos-andpotato-chip monitors had become careless again — or perhaps too high and mighty to care. Only yesterday she had tried to remind them that “a job worth well doing, children, is ... a well worth jobbing is . . . oh, well!” She was finding it increasingly difficult, particularly in the afternoons, to communicate with her charges in words they, or she, could understand. Was she possibly expecting too much from a group of certified underimbibers? Or was she becoming an overdemonstrator?
Now, she must face the most difficult group of all — those she’d had to ask to stay after school. There were representatives from all six grades, and the problem of age spread was as sticky as yesterday’s cheese dip.
“All right,” she said, steadying herself against her desk, “I know you’re all eager to get home, so let’s get down to work, immediately.”
“I’m sweepy!” said Lois Ann, a precocious but dilatory first-grade moppet who was a constant complainer.
“You’ve no reason to be sleepy,” said Miss Tuckerman. “You ate every bite of your lunch, according to the report I received, without finishing more than half your cocktail.”
“Watered sherry! Ugh!” said Lois Ann, breaking a swizzle stick to show her displeasure.
“Domestic, to boot!” yelled Jorge, a fourth grader whom Miss Tuckerman regarded as a challenge because he could pronounce amontillado better than she could. She had sympathy for him, too; was it his fault that she was not allowed to requisition Bacardi and fresh limes?
“All right, quiet now,” said Miss Tuckerman. “We’ll have a brief oral quiz while the monitors are serving the canapés.”
Three girls rose from their frontrow seats, and passed down the aisles with trays, amid cries of “H’ray. anchovies!” “Goody, shwimps!” and “Hey, teach, is da salami koshah?”
Miss Tuckerman closed her eyes and tensed her jaws. Could she bear it? Soon the noise level would increase, and she’d heard just about all the yammering she could bear; her last class— handicapped, it was true, because she’d run short of ice — had started a yelling match over their martinis, and when the twins, Dean and Dianne, had passed out, the exultant shouting and jeering had become deafening. Everyone despised Dean and Dianne, whose parents, both alcoholics, were suspected of doing all their homework for them.
Sighing, she went to the blackboard, and in a shaky script wrote the word “Tavel.” “Now,” she said, “who can tell me what this is supposed to — what this means?”
Several hands went up. She called on Mona, a pale bespectacled fifth grader, or “fifth,” in school slang.
“That’s the name of a small town in France,” said Mona. “The district produces a very fine rosé.”
“Right,” said Miss Tuckerman. “And who can tell us what kind of grapes are used?”
“Greenwich!” yelled Davey. “Something like that, anyway.”
“You haven’t studied, David’” said Miss Tuckerman. “It’s not Greenwich; it’s, uh, let me think . . . it’s Grenache. And please raise your hand when you wish to recite.”
“Skoal!” piped Marie, a tiny first grader, thrusting her pudgy hand into the air. “Skoal! Skoal! Skoal!” Marie’s father had been a Foreign Service Officer, and with one too many, she could sing “Roll Out the Barrel” in Swedish.
“Shhh! Please!” said Miss Tuckerman. “Now, yesterday you were supposed to have learned something about the simplest of all alcoholic liquors, gin. We found, didn’t we, that there are several kinds of gin — London Dry, Old Tom, sloe, and Holland? The question today is —”
“Me for London Dry,” said Robert, leaping to his feet, Robert, a handsome, bright boy with gold hair and incipient cirrhosis, was the sixth-grade troublemaker‚ and though he usually refused anything stronger than beer in class, he’d recently been caught swilling from his pocket flask in the cloakroom. Lone drinking was of course forbidden.
“Hush, Robert,” said Miss Tuckerman.
At this point the door opened, and in strode Miss Wheatley. A large, regal woman in her early sixties, with hawklike vision, she went directly to Miss Tuckerman, looked out over the class, and whispered: “Seems to be going very well, my dear. But have you noticed the time? Better send them home, or we’ll begin to get complaints from the parents.”
“Sure thing,” said Miss Tuckerman. “That’s all,” she cried. “ Monitors, let’s leave the dishes till tomorrow, OK? Everybody out now. Out, out, out! Quickly!”
They were out and stampeding down the stairs in less than a minute, a yelling, singing, gaily staggering mob.
“Lord,” said Miss Tuckerman, collapsing in her chair. “What a day!”
“I know what you mean,” said Miss Wheatley, boosting herself up to sit on Miss Tuckerman’s desk. She winked. “Say, dear,” she said, “I’m bone tired, and I’m sure you are, too. Let’s have ourselves a little afternoon cap. Any scotch left?”
“Down there,” said Miss Tuckerman, touching a foot to a lower desk drawer. “You make them, and I’ll have a double.”
“Right,” said Miss Wheatley.
When she had made the drinks, they lifted their glasses in a toast.
“Here’s to . . , to what?” said Miss Wheatley.
“Why, here’s to . . . to education!” said Miss Tuckerman.