I like to think of myself as a good person. Most people think of themselves that way, I suppose. I’ve read interviews with killers where they explain they had no choice, that they were forced to do what they did, they weren’t bad people. I roll my eyes, but all of us rationalize about our less than exemplary behavior.
I went to an all-girls high school, in the 1960s. Latin was a requirement for all students, good, bad, indifferent. Although the school didn’t admit to having tracks, it did. My freshman year all my classes were geared for girls who were going to college. (Remember, it was the mid-sixties; even private schools didn’t assume that every single girl was going to go to college.) However, my sophomore year I signed up for a special history class instead of algebra II, and that threw my schedule off. I had several classes with girls I didn’t know, who weren’t thinking about college.
Latin was one of those classes. The Latin teacher, Mrs. Morais, was an alumnae. As with many of the teachers, she had mixed emotions about what was happening in the outside world, how expectations for girls were starting to change. To her, it was most important that we learn how to be ladies, to be gracious and polite; that would help us in our real career, getting married, more than most of the things we actually learned.
Mrs. Morais was the worst kind of teacher, the type who ruled her classroom as a petty tyrant. She made fun of girls’ names, would spend an entire class redoing a girl’s hairstyle, gave unsolicited advice about posture, clothes, makeup. She didn‘t think she was unkind. She thought she was helping.
The worst part is that she had no idea of how to teach. Latin was easy for her, and she had no concept of how to help those for whom it was not. If she didn’t like a student, she didn’t hesitate to humiliate her.
One day she picked on Ann, who sat next to me. Mrs. Morais disapproved of Ann, who was loud, coarse and aggressive. Mrs. Morais picked a page a chapter ahead in our Latin book, and called on Ann to translate it, knowing that she couldn’t.
I could. I didn’t particularly like Ann myself, but Mrs. Morais’ use of embarrassment as a teaching tool angered me. I whispered the translation line by line to Ann, Mrs. Morais finally called on someone else. Ann was grateful, and we became, if not exactly friends, at least classroom buddies.
My younger sister attended the school, too. Cathie was a completely trusting soul; it did not occur to her that people would lie, or cheat, or be unkind. She came up to me at lunch to ask if she could borrow some money. Why, I asked. We had just gotten our allowances. Well, Cathie said, Ann, who Cathie didn’t know at all, had asked her for some money, so of course she had given it to her. I pursued that. It turned out that Ann asked Cathie for money almost every day.
I gave Cathie a couple of dollars, and told her that if anybody asked her for money, she should refer her to me. Then I walked through the lunchroom, and found Ann. How could you, I asked her. I didn’t have to tell her what I was asking about. She looked a bit embarrassed, but she laughed. “Yeah, I know,” she said. “But she’s just so dumb. It was too easy.” I walked away.
Here’s where thinking myself a good person comes in. About five years ago I read in my alumnae newsletter that Ann had died. Good, I thought.