You had to wonder if Fred got anything out of The Great Gatsby. This was 10th grade English at Freeland High School. This was Fred Conway, a kid everyone made fun of, a kid who was brutally picked on and mocked by guys (of course it was guys) for talking slow, for not being very smart. Today boys like Fred, when they’ve had enough abuse, bring a gun to school and go all Colombine. But there was kind of a serenity about Fred. He would look on, nod his head, and smile. In Miss Erdmann’s class he sat in the back of the room, over by the window.
Miss Erdmann, too, seemed like she must have been made fun of and mocked when she was in school. Kids at Freeland called her “Erd the Bird,” because she had a thin face, hollow cheeks, and an aquiline nose. I think her name was Mary Beth. She might have been 30 years old. Or she might have been 50. She was smart. And aloof. And I think untouchable by the farm kids who streamed noisily into her room, slouched and sprawled in their seats, and waited for the hour with her to be over. I remember that she wore voluminous skirts and blouses buttoned to the top button, and that one day she lifted a chair to top of her desk, climbed up there, and sat in that chair–to demonstrate to the girls in class the proper way of sitting, ankles together, knees together, legs perpendicular to the floor. To relax, swing both knees, still together! to the left or right. She was dedicated to educating the whole person.
After one year at our school, Miss Erdmann was gone. She probably was just waiting for that year to be over.
Before she left, she took us through The Great Gatsby. We each got a copy of the book–to keep. That had never happened before. She told us to write in our books. That had never happened before. Over the next two weeks we read and discussed the novel in class, following the action playing out on the East and West Egg, in the valley of ashes. Years later I came upon my copy of the book and wondered what I had underlined. Mostly single words, with a couple more words scrawled in the margin to define them.
This was not the first novel I had read. At the time I was interested in a girl named Valery Frost. We had study hall together. We had made out in Frank Johnson’s garage at a party one summer. Some days I called her on the phone after school–which is what you were supposed to do. Neither of us had much to say. There were many long awkward silences. One day in 2nd hour study hall with Mrs. Kamrath in the cafeteria, Valery Frost walked past my desk and set down a novel, Joy in the Morning. “Read this,” she said. On the cover was the front porch of a home, and a young man and woman sitting on the steps, having a conversation. The title, I thought, was promising. I wondered if there might be “good parts.”
There were good parts, but only a few, and frankly, not that good. But to my surprise, I discovered that I liked the story. It made study hall go by a little faster. After that, a friend handed me Catcher in the Rye, which I read and enjoyed. And now, with Miss Erdmann I was reading The Great Gatsby. Along with the words I was adding to my vocabulary, Miss Erdmann must have asked us to underline a few passages as well. This one, for example: “”In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone, he told me, just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”
I imagine she would have asked us to think about that advice, preparing us for Nick Carraway and Jay Gatsby, Tom Buchanan, and Daisy and Myrtle Wilson. And for the rest of our lives. Next year she was gone. Fred was still there, starting his senior year, taking abuse with patience and grace.
This makes me sad, but I really like the Great Gatsby words.