As I chronicle through my grade school teachers from some five decades ago and visualize their faces, I am amazed that only one appears in my mind's eye with a smile on her face. Just one. Why is that? All those school days were certainly not unpleasant, nor was I a problem student. And surely all of these women must have smiled sometimes.
But I see Miss Twohey, tall, thin, and grey-haired, looking cross; Mrs. Callahan, plump with thick-heeled shoes, looks stern; and Mrs. Klee, with a full short shock of white hair, just looks fidgety and frazzled. Miss Eldridge, short and prim, looks sour, and Miss Albert, very plump and grey-going-white, peers defensively through wire-rimmed glasses. Convinced that she had eyes in the back of her head, we called her "Hawk-eye." The one male teacher, from seventh grade, was a rough-hewn farmer with chiseled nose and chin; his face appears firm, serious, and focused, but I smile to remember him.
But then in high school came the little woman with a twinkling smile made from sunlight itself. Her smile was her confidence and ours. A proper lady, short, with a brace on a diseased leg and an extraordinary intellect, she towered in her classrooms and among her peers.
In freshman English Miss Pfeil smiled us through the syntax and tragedy of "Julius Caesar." She smiled encouragement as we struggled in reciting our memorized Mark Antony lines, "Friends, Romans, Countrymen! Lend me your ears." It seemed everything in the curriculum became a "chin-up-this-is-good-for-you" endeavor. Gerunds, infinitives, and participles were as much to be happy about as the depressing life of Silas Marner. She smiled us right on through sentence diagramming and theme writing, and we were firmly influenced.
Never did she allow us to know if she felt ill or weak or low. She simply lifted her chin, smiled, and set a forward course. I could not have written the previous sentence when I was her freshman student. Only later, after I was to teach on the high school staff with her for several years, could I perceive Gert Pfeil's smile as her sword, for both offense and defense.
On a faculty of one hundred, eighty were men, but when Gert hoisted to her full five foot stature to speak in a faculty meeting, she led with uplifted chin and a smile, followed by her well-articulated thoughts and good counsel--and the men were quiet. I remember one particular personal crisis, the loss of her long-supportive mother, when she met us at the door of her home with that same demeanor and skillfully directed the conversations toward our kindness and not her loss.
In all the instances of leg surgery, brace changes, special shoes, or the need for a cane, Gert made light of pain and difficulty. The twinkle in her eyes never wavered as she traveled a hallway with a marked limp, took the service elevator, or accepted help on a few stairs.
Near the end of her career, the politics of administration worked to her detriment, when she was given unreasonable teaching assignments, a circumstance that ultimately pushed her to an early retirement. We, her colleagues, were angry and indignant at the time; however, Gert lifted her chin, smiled, and assured us repeatedly that she would endure.
I can't recall just when I perceived Gert's legacy working in me. Perhaps it was one of the many times I raised my chin an inch and turned up the corners of my mouth before walking into my own classroom full of teenagers. Maybe it was when one of the boys one day said, "Don't you ever come in grumpy, ya know, in a bad mood?" Yet, who can fault such a mask which will inspire the wearer as well as the audience?
In times when sorrow or struggle besets, I feel my chin, as if on a string, pulled up an inch by an unseen puppeteer, who also pulls up the corners of my mouth and flips on the stage lights in my eyes.