Wednesday, April 3, 2013
This is one of those stories that is called “apocryphal.” That means that it is “of doubtful authenticity but widely circulated as true.” Now, with that said, consider this tale.
Sometime in the ’50’s, a shy lady named Niff showed up at the Sylva High School. It was her first year of teaching, and it was painfully obvious that she was ill-prepared to handle a roomful of rowdy, smirking, giggling teenagers. Sylva’s youth, like students everywhere, would invariably test a new teacher, and when the science class in the basement of the Sylva High School turned a judgmental eye on little Miss Neff, who stood smiling nervously and talking about the wonderful world of science and the adventures that were in store for them, the class traded glances. What happened next? Maybe a spitball hit the blackboard. Maybe one of the girls on the front row took out her “True Romance” magazine and began to read a lurid tale about curb-hops and football players. Maybe a trio of smokers rose and said they “needed to go to the bathroom” whereon they trooped out the door. Miss Neff did nothing. Poor woman! She had failed the test.
My heart goes out to Miss Niff, for I remember my first day in Waynesville where I had been hired to teach Civics. “I’m an English and Drama major,” I told “Major Bowles” and Principal Weatherby. “We don’t need an English teacher. We need a Civics teacher.” Then, I was ushered into a room of 48 students. There were only 30 seats. Sullen young men, taller and more imposing than I, lounged in the windows. A fifteen-year-old girl on the front row (This was the 9th grade), opened her pocketbook, exposing a box of Firechief matches and a pack of Camels. She extracted a pencil, closed her pocketbook, winked at me and said, “You’re cute.”
Back in the Principal’s office, Bowles said, “The State requires that we teach Civics. However, the students are not required to pass it.” Weatherby said “Your job is to keep them off the street.” He talked about
over-crowded classrooms, study halls that met in the gym and the difficulties of keeping teachers. “Let me give you some advice, young man,” said Weatherby. “Put your foot down the first day. They will run all over you if you let them. You may not last to see a pay day.”
Like Miss Neff, I was terrified, but I had an advantage. I was a drama major. Josefina Niggli, a large woman who resembled a great Persian cat had taught me to swagger, to feign anger, to storm about a stage like a psychopath, and I did all of that for my 9th grade Civics class. I stared down the big jocks in the back of the room, talked menacingly about purging the room of “punks,” (a dangerous word back then) and all the time, my heart was going like a trip-hammer. I don’t think I frightened them, but they were uncertain about me. At any rate, they decided to suffer my presence. In the weeks that followed, they spoke to me in the hall. “Hello, Little Teach.” To the surprise of Weatherby and Bowles, I lasted the year, and then I went to the badlands of Georgia where I did it all again. It got easier.
But Miss Neff didn’t do that. She came each day to that purgatory where she lectured to students who read comic books while she taught. The girls whispered to each other, exchanged notes, put on make-up. Many of the boys came and went as though they were on recess. Miss Neff covered the blackboard with information that no one read. Eventually, she was reduced to sitting behind her desk, delivering a lecture on phylums and sub-species that no one heard.
One of the students who was sitting on the front row on that fateful morning when Miss Neff finally got everyone’s attention, said that she remembered that the teacher had a huge carry-all handbag that sat on the floor by her desk. The student said that Miss Neff suddenly raised her voice, “Students! I really must insist that you get quiet.” She had been saying that daily for weeks now, but this time, she dipped her hand into that carry-all and came out with ... a gun. A big gun. She stood now and said, “I want you to take some notes today.” The room was suddenly very quiet, and then, Miss Neff began to write on the blackboard with one hand and emphasizing the syllables of the words with the barrel of the gun. Acanthocephala. Acoenlomorpha. Annelida. Big words with mysterious meanings. Miss Neff explained each one and gave humorous bits of information about them. The class took notes. They listened attentively. One version of the story claims that one of the football players wet his pants, and that a little stream flowed from his chair to the back of the room.
No one laughed. They copied the big words. Arthropeda. Brachhiopoda.
Eventually, someone went to the Principal’s office, and shortly after, his frightened face appeared at the door. Miss Neff nodded, smiled and continued her lecture. Shortly afterward, everyone heard the sirens. Two highway patrolmen and the sheriff showed up in the Principal’s office. When Miss Neff heard the sirens, she dropped her big pistol in the trash can. and continued her lecture without it. I guess she knew “that the jig was up,” as Jimmy Cagney used to say.
They escorted her out of the building ... three armed officers and a tiny woman with a big handbag. They found her gun, of course, and Miss Neff was lodged in the county jail. Another unconfirmed story notes that when the law officers broke into Miss Neff’s orderly little apartment, in search of
the names of relatives, every letter that they found had no return address. Every signature at the end of a letter had been removed. Every bit of personal information had been erased. I guess that means that she planned it. Of course, they took her to Broughton, or I guess it was still called “Morganton” then.
When I tell Miss Neff’s story, my version is a bit more dramatic. I like to describe how she pulled that big gun out of the bag and fired a shot into the ceiling. Plaster rains down on her desk, and several football players lose control of their kidneys. Why miss an opportunitiy like that!
When I think of Miss Neff now, I like to think of her sitting on a lawn or a porch with a glass of iced tea and a couple of books ... maybe Edna St. Vincent Millay, A. E. Houseman, and Amy Lowell. She can watch the sun set and enjoy a bit of peace and quiet. I envy her. She no longer has to slam doors and give a pretense of anger in order to be treated with respect. If you are still alive, dear, Ave! I am told by some of my learned brethen, that “Ave” means “hail and farewell,” so Ave, Miss Neff.