by T.N. McGill
Never to her face, she was called Bergy. Mom’s 1925 high school yearbook, dedicated to Bergy, shows a beautiful woman, “The belle of the ball,” Mom said. Commentary included “words of cheer” to students, “when our responsibilities seemed too great.” (After all, their school had burned.) The “ability to discern” and “an inspiring heart” were other extraordinary gifts she gave.
Bergy studied at the University of Kentucky, the Cincinnati College of Music and the Normal School at Richmond. She taught history. By the time she taught us, 35 years later, she taught Latin and literature, a true Renaissance woman.
She quoted from memory miles of Shakespeare and Caesar, each in his own tongue. She read us stories and winced or cried, moaned in pain or laughed, with the characters. Her wit and puns kept us attentive. She didn’t have to be good at discipline because she was so eccentric. We wanted to be there, alert, to see what she’d do next.
When she taught us, the words of cheer, the discerning examination of a poem and the inspiring heart were still there, but I don’t know how.
Folk rumors being what they are, Mom said Bergy had been heartbroken when both of her parents and her brother, a medical doctor, has perished in the flu pandemic at the end of World War I. Ten years later, she was jilted by a professor of elocution whose precise manner of speaking she acquired. She kept her family’s rooms just as they left them in their grand Victorian house. Or was that but our shadow of Miss Havisham in “Great Expectations,” whom Bergy seemed to have met?
When I knew her, she was not the woman of this photograph. She weighed perhaps 450 pounds, was fragile and broken down emotionally, perhaps mad. Yet in our class she was a brilliant teacher. Inside my head I can still hear her reading to us, and there are still echoes of unique phrases taken no doubt from her lover’s ways.
“Bentley, discover for me what is in that box.” “Fetch up that large book.” “… the most precious lines of our friend, Mr. Shakespeare …” “Could you put that in the active periphrastic case?” was one of her in-jokes.
She owned a small taxi service and a cab took her to and from school each day. We had no elevator, and her classroom was on the third floor.
She was never sick and out of school. She did not leave her chair at her desk all day. Someone brought her a cafeteria tray “for my little luncheon,” she would say.
She wore the same dress all week, and owned two of them, one with small neat pink flowers on it, one with blue. She was neither unclean nor unkempt, and her long hair was done up in a fashionable, neat graying bun. Her glasses perched on the very edge of her nose, so she could both look at us and read.
During our senior year, she reached 70, the mandatory retirement age. “I shall be graduated with you all,” she told us in class late that May. Missing was her smile.
Now her life got more peculiar. For years her only trusted friend was Robert, a former student, a war-wounded veteran. Bergy retreated behind the overgrown vegetation surrounding her now-spooky house. Inside, someone with EMS said, and Robert confirmed, there were endless stacks of old magazines and newspapers. She had no listed telephone number.
Sometimes she would call parents of former students. Mom politely listened several times after 2 in the morning, learning that someone was stealing Bergy’s trees, and another time that her dear volume of Mr. Shakespeare had been “fetched hence by the fairies.”
Bergy lived eight years beyond her retirement, and died in 1970.
I have wondered at the constant interplay of this woman’s deep suffering and her basic human goodness. There was no reason she should have suffered so. There is every lesson in her ability to follow, day by day, her calling as a teacher. This, no matter what was going on in the thorny vegetation of her agonizing memories.
Bergy’s way is more courageous than mine can now be. I say thanks for her uncanonized sainthood.
T.N. McGill is a theology teacher at Providence High School in Clarksville. Contact him at [email protected]