Miss Larson

A young man from a small Iowa town learns the hard way the darkness he is capable of creating.

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It’s hard being new in town.

In the summer of 1965, that was my fate when my family moved to the small town of Cerro Gordo, Iowa. I was 13, adrift in a strange place, and about to start my freshman year at Immaculate Conception High School, better known even to the Franciscan nuns who ran it as IC. My modest and only hope was to make a few good friends.

Hope was a core conviction for the Franciscans, who drilled students as thoroughly in spiritual matters as in academics. More than 50 years later I recall without hesitation that faith, hope, and charity are the three heavenly virtues at the heart of Christian belief, and the greatest of these is charity. I will never forget that, not because I was such a good student but because I was such a bad one.

My first year at IC was both difficult and rewarding. Cerro Gordo, nestled deep in farm country, was isolated and aloof. My welcome was reserved at best, but I tried hard to be a good classmate and within a few months overcame the coolness of my initial reception. Once accepted and then befriended, I quickly forgot my early loneliness and relished life from the inside. My formerly cold classmates were becoming my warm friends, and the town I had once found aloof was now everything on earth to me. Small though it was, my world never seemed so big as during those heady days of transformation from child to adolescent.

After completing my freshman year, I enjoyed an idyllic summer of little work and much play in the company of my new friends. We filled our summer vacation with swimming, golfing, hiking, biking, and whatever else struck our fancy. We took for granted the indulgent behavior of our families, delighted in being residents of such a great town, and felt sorry for the kids living in neighboring, lesser towns. Our faith in things both large and small was abiding then, and not easily shaken.

The start of our sophomore year offered my classmates and me a new set of convictions: That our varsity football team would win the conference title, that freshmen were so gullible and trusting they deserved to be treated as badly as we treated them, that Franciscan views of the proper length for girls’ skirts and boys’ hair were hopelessly backward, and that IC had scraped the bottom of the barrel when it hired Miss Laura Larson to teach sophomore English.

Miss Larson was a short, stocky woman in her mid-30s, very plain in both dress and appearance, and lacking any sense of humor at all. She taught only sophomore English, which itself was peculiar. She did not seem to have another job, and she did not live in Cerro Gordo. Every morning she was dropped off at the school by a dour woman in an unmarked black van.

Her dry, earnest delivery caused us to roll our eyes at first, then to act up in class to test her mettle (she did nothing), and finally to refuse to cooperate. There was no overt agreement among ourselves to say nothing in class; rather, it developed over time, starting small with the realization that Miss Larson would not call on anyone to recite, then looming larger as we dared her with our silence to get us to say anything. Through Longfellow and Whitman we pushed our advantage until she fell back on lifeless lectures about Dickens’ humanity and Twain’s humor, delivered without even making eye contact. The more uncomfortable she appeared in class, the more animated our discussion afterwards. It reminds me now of the summer I was ten, when some rural cousins of mine cut off the feet of a toad to see whether it could still jump. Just an experiment, you see.

That fall IC’s football team rolled to victory after victory, girls’ skirts got shorter as boys’ hair got longer, and freshmen continued to fall victim to our pranks, as though reluctant to trade their natural faith and trust in humanity for a protective shell of wariness. And why not? Do any of us really prefer wariness to faith and trust?

Through the good offices of Sister Mary Kevin, an indomitable mathematics teacher who took an interest in me the year before when I was new and alone, I had obtained an after-school job assisting the school custodian. Normally, I swept out classrooms and emptied wastebaskets, but in the late autumn there was much leaf raking to do, particularly on the expansive convent grounds adjacent to the school parking lot. So it was late one Friday afternoon I found myself on the lawn of the convent, rake in hand, witnessing the most improbable pairing of driver and automobile one could ever hope to see. In the school parking lot, tiny Laura Larson sat peering just over the huge steering wheel of an old Buick Roadmaster, practicing starts from a dead stop with Sister Kevin calmly instructing her from the passenger side.

The clutch was Miss Larson’s nemesis. She either released it too quickly, killing the engine; too slowly, racing the engine while going nowhere; or, worst of all, too slowly and then too quickly, sending them lurching across the lot until Miss Larson stomped on the brakes, bringing the Buick to a screeching halt. I stood transfixed, mesmerized by Miss Larson’s inability to get it right.

After a particularly glaring set of lurches was brought to a sudden stop, the Buick sat motionless at one end of the parking lot for a long time. From where I stood I could not see them, so I began raking toward the parking lot to get a better look. As I came closer I could see Sister Kevin with her arm around Miss Larson, apparently trying to comfort her. Suddenly, they both got out of the car and started toward the convent. All I could do was look down, rake furiously, and act as though I had seen nothing. I fooled no one. As they approached I heard Sister Kevin softly tell Miss Larson she must not despair, that there is always hope. I looked up, amazed that driving a car, no matter how ineptly, could have brought on this much anguish. I was met by a cold stare from Sister Kevin. I quickly looked down at my work and felt my face flush with embarrassment. What had I done? Why did Sister Kevin look at me that way?

That evening IC won its sixth straight game. I was too distracted to pay much attention. We usually hung out at the bowling alley after games, but I told my friends I had a headache and went home right afterwards. I felt uneasy but did not know why, which made me uneasier still. I did not sleep well that night.

The next day I was back at the convent to finish raking the leaves. The Buick was gone. I hoped to see Sister Kevin walk by but she did not, and I lacked the courage to ring the bell and ask for her. When I finished for the day I stopped at the bowling alley on my way home but found none of my friends there and left right away. I spent Saturday night at home watching television with my family, feeling unsettled and alone.

On Sunday I studied half-heartedly for several tests that week. One of the exams was in our religion course, and during my review I read again that the three heavenly virtues are faith, hope, and charity, and that the greatest of these is charity. As I pondered that, I finally understood charity is not just almsgiving. It is also love of neighbor.

I thought about Miss Larson, not as an authority figure, not as a teacher in front of her class, but as the small, waif-like woman helped to the convent’s back door by Sister Kevin, whose cold stare I also thought about and now realized had nothing to do with witnessing the driving lesson. In one of those epiphanies of life we never forget, I fully identified for the first time with the problems of an adult. I saw in Miss Larson a lonely individual cruelly mistreated by a classroom of students who had collectively decided to exploit her awkwardness. I felt shame at my participation in this most uncharitable of acts, and knew exactly what to do. I would speak up in Miss Larson’s next class at the first opportunity and as often thereafter as it took to defeat the conspiracy of silence.

At this neat resolution of the problem I felt pleased and exhausted at the same time. The long weekend of thinking and worrying had worn me down. I went to bed early on Sunday and slept soundly for the first time in three nights.

On Monday morning I displayed an eagerness to get to school that had my parents exchanging glances. English was my first class of the day and I was impatient to demonstrate my newfound grasp of Christian charity.

As the school bell rang at 8:00 a.m., Sister Kevin walked into the classroom and shut the door. Despite the novelty of our mathematics teacher’s presence in English class, I looked down at my notebook, not wanting to risk eye contact and a recurrence of Friday’s cold stare.

Sister Kevin was silent for some time. I did not look up, but if one can feel the gaze of another I felt her gaze that morning. Some of my classmates squirmed in their seats as they began to realize what I already knew.

Miss Larson was gone.

Sister Kevin then spoke very softly in a voice tinged with sadness rather than anger. She told us Miss Larson would not return and that she would teach our class the rest of the term. She described Miss Larson as a brilliant and brave woman whose earlier teaching career had been cut short by a medical issue Sister Kevin did not reveal. Miss Larson, her doctors, and the nuns at IC had all thought she was ready to try teaching again, but Miss Larson had suffered a setback and asked to be relieved of her duties. Sister Kevin said she was sorry to see Miss Larson go and hoped the class felt the same way. She told us to read on in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for the rest of the period and to be prepared the next day to discuss Twain’s use of irony.

I thought about irony for the rest of that period and for a long time afterwards. I saw irony — black, bitter irony — in a once lonely newcomer’s cold treatment of another lonely newcomer, in learning of the virtue of charity in one class while ignoring it in another, and in demonstrating with the rest of my class that demonic behavior can arise in the most benign of settings.

My age of innocence was over. Unlike our gullible freshman class, I readily traded faith and trust in humanity for wariness, for now I knew something disturbing.

I knew I was capable of evil.

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