MRS. DYER

by Jonathan Galassi

 

Plympton Public School, Plympton, Massachusetts, fall 1958

Our town was a country place of no more than eight hundred that felt barely touched by modern life. It had a long green with a Civil War monument, a tall-spired Congregational church, stately elm trees before the Dutch disease wiped them out, and a string of old houses on its sandy roads. Deborah Sampson, the only woman to fight in the Revolutionary War, had grown up here. There were citizens of Plympton who boasted that they’d never spent a night outside town. My parents had grown up in cities and wanted to hang their laundry in the clean breeze and keep chickens. In the spring of 1953, they bought an old Cape Cod house here with fifty-four acres of scrub forest and a cranberry bog down the road.

The school was about a mile from our house, a four-room brick pavilion topped by a cupola with recently-added classrooms and an auditorium on a treeless rise across from the cemetery. In grades one, two, and three I had Mrs. Eaby, Mrs. Gauquier, and Mrs. Tyson, who was exotically from Tennessee. I loved them all, for I was one of those nerdy kids who adored school—everything but recess, where we milled around on the scrub grass and I tried to avoid getting into scrapes with the rougher boys.

In fourth grade, we moved to the much more grown-up classroom with a narrow-strip wood floor, wooden desks that weren’t designed for left-handed kids like me, and blackboards, where Mrs. Dyer taught. I’d gotten glasses over the summer, when my mother realized I couldn’t read the words on the screen at the drive-in. I was ready.

Why did I fall in love with Mrs. Dyer? You couldn’t say she was beautiful. She was short, with a bulbous nose, brown hair (dyed, no doubt) permed in large curls, and wire-rim glasses. A white blouse covered her large bosom and she wore no-nonsense high-laced shoes that accentuated her sharp, short gait. But she was the undisputed ruler of her domain, and very soon I came alive under the heat lamp of her encouragement.

Why was this the moment my education took hold? Was it the way she understood me inside-out, or was I at that crucial moment when I could benefit fully from her special brand of challenging attention—or was it a magical amalgam of the two? With her broad New England accent and firm, gentle manners, Mrs. Dyer exuded an old-fashioned matronly dignity that I couldn’t know had already gone out of style. She radiated benevolence and wisdom like my mother’s beloved mother, Muffie, who drove down from Boston in her green Nash Rambler sedan to visit us on Wednesday afternoons.

Was I her favorite student in our class? I like to think so, of course, because I want to believe my love was reciprocated. I can still recall her gruff purr of pleasure and open smile and the sense that, whatever it was I was doing, it made her happy. She could be strict and severe, and was capable of anger, but what I remember feeling was the gratification, and excitement at how much there was to learn.

Her special interest—or maybe it was the assigned curriculum—was history. We were surrounded by it: we were only ten miles from Plymouth, where the Pilgrims had landed and Plimoth Plantation had opened a few years before. And we were forty miles from Boston, where Esther Forbes’s Johnny Tremain had thrillingly lived the Revolution. Mrs. Dyer had us build dioramas of the first Thanksgiving and took us on field trips to Faneuil Hall and Old North Church. That year we steeped in history like tea.

I soon discovered reading for my own enjoyment and began devouring books of all kinds, haunting the little town library that was open two afternoons a week. I fell in love with spelling, too, and arithmetic. School was so totally absorbing to me that, in many ways, it became my life. I loved Mrs. Dyer so much that for my birthday I asked my parents to invite her to our house for dinner. I’ve searched in vain for the snapshot my mother took of her sitting by the fireplace playing Scrabble with my brother and me. Both he and my sister had her in class as well, but I think it was I for whom she was all-important. In fact he reminded me recently that I told my mother I wanted Mrs. Dyer to be my teacher forever.

I did a little digging writing this and discovered that Mrs. Dyer was born Lucy M. Knowles in 1896, which means she was about a decade younger than my grandparents and was in her early sixties when I had her in class. Her life spanned three centuries; she was a young mother in the Roaring Twenties and in her forties during the Second World War. Mrs. Dyer was divorced, as her name, Lucie M. Dyer, suggested. I often wondered if that was what led her to become a teacher in later life? (Her daughter Dorismae, whom she often mentioned, was also an elementary school teacher, in Halifax, the adjacent town.)

My mother stayed in touch with Mrs. Dyer after she retired and occasionally showed me the notes she received from her over the years. I wrote her on her hundredth birthday to tell her how large she still loomed in my imagination. She died in 2000, just shy of 104.

What was it about Mrs. Dyer that makes her live on in my memory? In fifth grade I was taught by the principal, Mr. Barrows, an odd, slight man with a prominent Adam’s apple who was an equally devoted and inventive teacher. (When I think of the attention that was lavished on the twelve of us in that little town I’m amazed and deeply grateful.) But it was Mrs. Dyer who won my life-long loyalty. Part of her mystique, I think, lay in her solitary independence. She was—and still is—a goddess of self-possession and self-reliance, a loving Athena, a Juno dispensing the hot cider of affirmation to a desperately hungry young boy who drank it in.

I’m older now than Mrs. Dyer was when she taught us, but she’s still alive to me. She still waves her magic wand, dispensing the fairy dust that made her the most loved teacher I have ever had. What greater gift can a child receive? What better thing to do with one’s life?

Copyright © 2019 by Jonathan Galassi

JONATHAN GALASSI is the president of Farrar, Straus & Giroux where he has edited many writers, including Jonathan Franzen, Jeffrey Eugenides, Alice McDermott, and Marilynne Robinson. He’s the author of three collections of poetry, as well as acclaimed translations of the Italian poets Eugenio Montale and Giacomo Leopardi. A former Guggenheim Fellow and poetry editor of The Paris Review, he also writes for The New York Review of Books and other publications.