Better than Fiction (non fiction)
She was in her first year of teaching English and Social Studies at Emerson Junior High in West Los Angeles. It was 1954; I was 11 and feeling lost in my new surroundings. The school resembled an institution, dark, crowded and filled with the noise of kids yelling at each other. I felt anxiety nearly every day and even stopped eating breakfast due to an iffy stomach. The school seemed at least twice the size of my elementary school and I had to take a crowded bus for a half hour each way. The bus stopped at the corner of my street each morning at 7:20, taking us down the landscaped and winding Sunset Boulevard, past million dollar homes before dumping us in the apartment-littered landscape of West Los Angeles where Emerson was located.
It was my first experience moving from class to class seven times over the course of the day and I lived in daily fear I would forget where to go. I had the whole schedule written on the front of my notebook. Miss Cottle’s classes were my first of the day after homeroom and I found them and her somehow reassuring. With her short stature and youthful appearance, she didn’t seem all that much older than I was. She wore her light brown hair short, didn’t seemed to wear much makeup and dressed in tailored clothing. I also wore my hair short, hadn’t yet discovered makeup and dressed very simply. She didn’t smile a lot but there was something about her that told me she cared about the students. I didn’t get that feeling from many of the other teachers I had that year. At the time, I had no idea this was her first year in a classroom and that she was probably as anxious as I was.
Some time early in the semester, I had been chasing my brother around the kitchen table, caught my little toe on the corner and fractured it in two pieces. Miss Cottle advised me to stay in during the nutrition break between her classes, to spare the risk of someone stomping on it, which often happened on the bus between home and school. It was during those breaks, just the two of us in her classroom, that we bonded, really over chit-chat.
“Did you see ‘Perry Mason’ last night?” she asked.
“Yeah. I knew right off who did it.”
“Me, too. But it’s like the Sherlock Holmes book I’ve assigned, isn’t it? It’s the thrill of the chase and the uncovering of the villain that keeps you interested.”
This kind of conversation drew me in very quickly. She talked to me as she would an adult. She had a wiry build with a head like a triangle, making her eyes appear large and penetrating. She used this to her advantage in controlling students. Her interventions in class were always just a little barbed. If no one volunteered an answer to her question quickly enough, she would ask, “Did anyone turn off the TV and read the assignment last night?” Or if someone looked like he wasn’t paying attention, she might say, “Are we disturbing your nap, Mr. Johnston?”
During my first year at Emerson, a new school had been built, closer to home. It still required a bus ride but it wasn’t as long. I looked forward to going to Paul Revere Junior High. It had to be better than the oppressive and dark Emerson halls. The many buildings were all one story, each identified by a letter of the alphabet. Though spread out over a wide area, all the classrooms were easy to find and were clean and bright. The buildings were connected by breezeways and the lockers were outside, instead of being located on the second floor of a distant decrepit building. I had signed up to take Drama One as one of my eighth grade electives, finally tip-toeing into an area I had found too daunting before. When I walked into the classroom that first day, there was Miss Cottle. Only now she was the married Mrs. Nagel. Better still, she had married an actor! I could feel myself getting excited about the possibilities. It was good to see her again.
As a 13-year-old, I was terrified of embarrassing myself in any way, great or small. While I sensed an unspecified kinship in Mrs. Nagel, I knew her to be caustic if not downright sarcastic in class. She had the power to bring down my world with a glance, a comment or even a written criticism. On one paper, I had inserted several unfilled pages in the back of a report to make it look longer. Her comment scrawled diagonally on one of the pages came back, “Blank pages won’t help your grade, my little friend.”
Over the course of the school year, I made it through the usual theater exercises, from pantomimes to improvisations. During an assigned pantomime on stage, I was supposed to be a burglar, sneaking into a house. She didn’t think I was concentrating hard enough, so she picked up an empty metal pitcher from her desk and threw it across the entire classroom onto the stage behind me. The reverberation caused the students to gasp but I didn’t flinch. That wasn’t good. If I had been truly in the scene, the noise should have startled me. But even by then, there was very little that threw me off emotionally.
In an improvisation that same semester, Mrs. Nagel whispered to each of us on stage a secret that we had to communicate to the other actor. My scene partner told me she was dying of cancer. I was supposed to react to that, as part of the dramatic exercise and play the scene. I went over and sat down next to her, asking her questions about how she was feeling. Later, when one student in class critiqued me because I didn’t cry, Mrs. Nagel stood up for me. “I know Pam well enough to know that what you saw was her natural reaction. Nothing phony about it at all.”
I went on to Drama Two the following year. In spite of my nervousness, I loved being on stage, risking myself that way. The adrenalin rush was almost intoxicating but I was crushed if I made a mistake or forgot a line. And while Mrs. Nagel often provided a painful critique, I trusted she knew what she was doing. I was hooked, both on theater and on Mrs. Nagel. I didn’t realize it at the time, but she gave me the gift of a passion that would last me my whole life.
One morning I caught a glimpse of her arriving in her car when the bus dropped us off. I memorized her license plate number – JNY362 - and started leaving little gifts and cards in her car from time to time. This was long before dress codes were abandoned and teachers and students casually hugged each other, mind you. The boundaries between teacher and student were formal and very tightly drawn. I was willing to risk it a bit to get closer to this powerful person. I figured if I had stepped over a line, she would have been quick to tell me so. She was not at all shy about telling people what she thought. When she thanked me or commented on one of my “gifts,” I felt as if I had pleased her in some small way.
She had something I wanted, though I wasn’t sure what it was at the time. Perhaps it was her iconoclastic flair and proficiency with words. On one occasion, she was lecturing about one of Shakespeare’s plays. She caught me rolling my eyes. “I know you’d rather be starring in an MGM musical, Pam, but you really need to learn about all forms of drama, especially Shakespeare.” Before long, she had assigned me a scene from “Twelfth Night,” much to my dismay. I slogged through it, but developed an aversion to The Bard that remains today.
Most of the adults in my life had been out of a Sinclair Lewis novel, conforming and stereotypical. Mediocrity was not as feared as violating consensual social rules. Material success was what counted, not intellectual stimulation or educational achievement. Male and female roles seemed assigned by some invisible force, violated at your own peril. I had nightmares about dressing inappropriately for school. This was the mid-1950s, and women who broke the rules or spoke their minds were rare. Vicki was intense and direct and I wanted some of that. I liked her confrontational style, though it often terrified me.
By the time I graduated from the ninth grade, I had appeared in small parts in several bland and forgettable school productions and was the regular announcer for the morning news on the school’s PA system, often impersonating the powerful Hollywood columnist, Louella Parsons. I loved speaking in her nasal, sing-song voice to give life to the boring school announcements. In fact, I had become a habitual impersonator of many of my teachers, but never Mrs. Nagel. I wanted to emulate her but I could not impersonate her. It would have felt disloyal.
I was sad to leave junior high. Those last two years at Revere were to be the best years of my school career, thanks to a large extent to Mrs. Nagel. I had a genuine ally, an adult I trusted, a new experience for me. Over the course of the final year, I had turned in movie and TV reviews and a lengthy history of motion pictures, “From Meg to Mic.” She gave me an A on all of them, making constructive and encouraging comments on each one. Part of me was still afraid of her, giving an adrenalin-fueled hyper-reality to our relationship. Yet, under her influence, I blossomed like a cultivated flower. I made the honor roll and habitually began taking riskier steps outside my prescribed world. I started to think about writing reviews, perhaps in high school or college – or even for a living. For perhaps the only time in all my academic years, I felt like I belonged there. I had been a chubby, four-eyed nerdy iconoclast in those early adolescent years. At a time when girls weren’t supposed to be smart, I was something of an outcast. And I was past the age where I could get away with being my habitual athletic self. Girls were marshaled into the prescribed housewifey feminine model by adolescence. None of this seemed to matter to Mrs. Nagel, though. It wasn’t anything she said or did, but someone I respected, respected me back.
I don’t remember how it happened, but we reconnected when I was in high school. By this time, I was the managing editor of the school paper, writing movie reviews every week. The glasses had been replaced by contact lenses, though I still struggled with weight. I had opted out of school dramatics (no time in my schedule) and, with a friend, had written and was starring in a musical comedy revue off campus, to which I had invited the Nagels. Once Vicki was back in my life, my parents invited Don and Vicki over to our house for dinner. Kids didn’t invite teachers – even ex-teachers - home then, so this was a major event in my young life.
Shortly after they arrived, dressed for dinner, I timidly invited her into my bedroom, my sanctuary. It was like allowing her entrance into my private, inner world. Two walls in my room were lined with books and record albums. A few years before, I had started a subscription to the Fireside Theatre book club in which I received a new play every month. The record shelves were lined with popular music LPs – Doris Day, Eydie Gorme, Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra along with Broadway and Hollywood musicals and a smattering of classical albums. I had designed a lazy Susan bookcase that dominated one corner of the room, floor-to-ceiling. There was a TV on a small stand near one wall. My bed was a white naugahyde couch I made up each night. I thought it looked more sophisticated than just a conventional bed and overlooked the discomfort. When I shepherded her into my bedroom with all the autographed movie star photos on the walls and the plays in the bookcase, I think she was surprised. We sat down on my couch and talked for a while.
She looked at the titles. “All those plays. Have you read them all?”
“Yes, I have. I prefer the musicals and the comedies but I try to read whatever the book club offers that month.”
“Do you have a favorite?”
“I’ve been reading William Inge and Arthur Miller. I’d sure like to see them performed. I’ve seen the movies but they must be more vital on the stage.”
I don’t remember how it started, but quickly I found myself trusting her with my observations about classmates, about school and about my future. She was invariably supportive, yet challenging as she had always been with me. My high school ambition was to become Darryl F. Zanuck, the head of a major motion picture studio, since I was too timid to admit my real performing fantasies, even to her. When I told her I didn’t plan to go to college, she confronted me.
“I just want to go out and get a job at a studio,” I declared.
“You can always do that,” she countered. “But college will give you things you don’t know you need yet.”
I hated school by then, defending my position by telling her that none of the powerful movie moguls had gone to college. Most had not even made it through high school. Our dialogues were spirited and straightforward.
Once, I asked her, “What do you think I will do with my life?” She paused. “What do you want to do?” I didn’t know, but I knew it had to be about show
business somehow. So her first answer surprised me.
“I think you’d be a good social critic. Your powers of observation are very good for someone your age.”
Social critic? What was that? I knew I was developing the same kind of acerbic style I had heard coming from her, but I didn’t know I could make a career out of being an articulate curmudgeon.
“Or,” she continued, “you could write for Daily Variety. Your reviews seem to have taken on that style.”
I hadn’t told her that I had already started subscribing to that trade paper a year or two earlier, a reading habit I continued for nearly fifty years when it stopped publication.
“You’d also make a darned good teacher.”
I bristled and quickly countered, “I would never do that.” At that point, I just wanted to finish school and get as far away from it as possible. And the thought of being stuck with students like me would make me want to run from the room. Ironically, I did teach several different academic subjects at the university level – but not theater.
During one of the Sundays around the pool, she mentioned that she would be starring in a student TV production of “Witness to Murder,” which had been a recent film starring Barbara Stanwyck. It’s a one-woman drama in which a bedridden woman overhears her own murder being planned through an accidentally overheard phone call. I had seen the movie and begged my parents to take me so I could see her do it. I had hoped to actually be on set, but instead I sat with my mother in a dark room at UCLA, watching Vicki on a television screen as she played the demanding, suspenseful role in this thriller. I had never seen her perform and I was totally agog. When we met briefly afterward, I gushed like a real fan. I knew then that she was as talented an actor as she was a teacher and wondered why she hadn’t pursued it professionally.
Over the next few years, the Nagels were frequent guests. On many occasions, Vicki would call and indirectly wangle an invitation for that day. We had a pool and they came to swim and join us in a barbeque. At first, my parents found it strange there were never any invitations coming the other way. I thought perhaps they didn’t have the money to entertain. As an actor, Don wasn’t often employed and took other part-time jobs. But I had no complaints. I enjoyed what had become our private talks in my room. It was like therapy for me. Here was an adult in whom I could confide and who understood my passion for show business.
But I was well aware of the uncomfortably one-sided situation about which my parents complained more frequently. They had joked with me about how self-absorbed Don was and complained about being stuck with those conversations with him while Vicki and I talked in my room. They didn’t understand why Don didn’t have a “real” job and thought he was living off his wife, a scathing indictment for the times. As time went on, the resentment seemed to escalate. My mother referred to them as “deadbeats” and “freeloaders” and laughed about them behind their backs. I began to see their point. Soon, they stopped issuing the invitations and the relationship faded. When Vicki called and asked what we were doing, I had to lie and say we were going out. After a few of those calls, she got the picture and stopped calling. I felt terrible being in the middle but I had to let it go. I would end every deceptive phone call with my heart racing and a sense of loss.
We met from time to time over the following decades, often at one of the plays she was directing for a local community college. She had invited me to see her production of “Born Yesterday” done in the round. Though she had directed it, she sat on the other side of the stage in the audience, opposite me. Afterwards, she told me, “I only had to watch your face to see how the production was going. It was like getting a review.”
Now an adult, I became more aware of her occasionally tense relationships with others as well as her narrow-mindedness on social and political issues. She and Don had sometimes made bigoted references about minorities, nonconformists and gay people. There was one dinner on our backyard patio in which we were discussing who might be gay in Hollywood. At the mention of each candidate, Don or Vicki would hold out their hand limply and lisp the name. “Oh, he’th tho thweet, ithn’t he?” It was clear gay was not a good thing to be. I sat there, taking it all in, enjoying being “in” on what others did not know but also not understanding the reasons for my squirming.
At one point, Vicki proudly announced she was a Republican and had supported a statewide political initiative that required a loyalty oath for all teachers. She was adamant in her opposition to any federal government “interference” in education. These comments didn’t matter to me when I was in junior high and, in fact, echoed my parents’ political and social biases as well. It was one of the few topics upon which all four of them seemed to agree. But by the time I hit late adolescence and my early 20s, I had become a politically-aware liberal Democrat and an articulate feminist and was appalled and disappointed by her attitudes. I never confronted her but I found myself retreating in discomfort and disappointment.
In those later years, she seemed more closed off and defensive than I had remembered. We had one baffling encounter following an expensive dinner in which her husband picked up the check. We had not seen one another in at least ten years, the last time being at my wedding. At the beginning of the evening, I thought I had picked up some tension from her and surmised she and Don had exchanged harsh words before their arrival. When the elevator door opened and they stepped out, I was stunned. Vicki had not aged well. Her hair was white and very short, almost sheared, and she looked gaunt and tense. That she was shorter than I was took me by surprise. In my youth, she had seemed outsized and formidable. I was disappointed to receive a less-than-warm greeting from her as I gave her a big hug. I wasn’t all that surprised when she opted not to sit next to me at the restaurant, still not understanding what was going on. I had brought my son and he and Vicki seemed to hit it off. I loved it that she got to know and enjoy him, a continuation of our historical connection.
However, a week or so later, she wrote me a terse letter with an angry, almost irrational tone, suggesting I should have taken care of the bill, “after all your feminist talk.” Confused, I sent her a check for what I thought might have covered our part, apologizing for any misunderstanding. It came back in little pieces, with more insulting comments. She declared I should put the check “where the sun don’t shine.” It seemed that something was happening in her life. It didn’t feel as if it had anything to do with me at all but I felt immobilized by her words. After that startling event, I stopped all contact for more than 25 years.
Decades later, as I approached my senior years, I reflected on the people who had influenced me to be the person I became. She was most certainly close to the top of the list. It amused me when I realized I had adopted her cynicism, sarcasm and world-weariness in my own life. It seemed to fit me like a glove. Most of all, though, she was there when I needed her to be with those talks in my room, her willingness to befriend and nurture me. In some ways, she was a provocateur, always cajoling me to do better, to go for what I wanted, to hone my skills, fulfill my fantasies. These were things I would remember all my life. She encouraged me as a performer and as a writer, the only person in my world to support and appreciate my investment in both of those pursuits. It happened that I was still actively engaging in both those activities, which I thought would please her. I wrote and thanked her for who she had been for me and she wrote back immediately, expressing surprise, gratified to get the note.
There were a few more letters over the next two years. By then, I was singing and performing in several bands. She asked me to send her a schedule, saying that she would try to drive the two hours to see me perform. I was afraid of her judgment at a vulnerable time in my life and never followed through.
Then I received a card announcing her death, sent by a former student, “her” Billie Dawn in “Born Yesterday.” Don had died a few years before that and there was apparently no family except this ex-student who saw Vicki as her surrogate mom and had become her family. In the little memorial booklet was a picture of her smiling. Funny, but when I thought of her in my mind, she was never smiling. It almost didn’t look like her. I wondered what I had missed.
I emailed the surrogate daughter, asking what had happened to Vicki. What came back, though, was a possible explanation for what had transpired that evening in the restaurant so many years ago. Around that time, Don had been diagnosed with a fatal disease, which would cause him to waste away over the next few years. I thought it was possible they could have recently gotten the news and didn’t want to share it with us. It couldn’t help but color her experience there and everywhere else. I felt a sense of relief but I’m not sure what more could have been done at the time.
I went to the internet and Googled her. Buried deep in the entries was an article she had written in tribute to the public library just a few years before her death. Born in the early years of the Great Depression, she described a childhood of intermittent homelessness, driving around in an old car with her mother and whatever man was in her mother’s life, looking for work and a place to sleep. When they found it, they would send Vicki to the public library to get rid of her when she wasn’t in school. She had developed few social skills driving around in a car and didn’t read well, either. At the library, she was treated as a real person for the first time and given responsibilities. It changed her life.
I was stunned by the article. I had no idea. She never shared her early life with me. This was a person I wanted to know better, to hear how she had extricated herself from this life of poverty and despair. How had she created such a dynamic person out of the rubble? Of course, it was too late. No wonder she wanted to spend time with my stable middle-class family. And I understood now why she spent all those hours with me in my room. She must have seen some of herself in this intense, driven, nonconforming kid who didn’t fit in, either. She wanted to pass it on. And so she did. One of the best things I ever did was to thank her for that.
first published in Lady Literary magazine
Pam Munter has authored several books including When Teens Were Keen: Freddie Stewart and The Teen Agers of Monogram and Almost Famous. She’s a retired clinical psychologist, former performer and film historian. Her essays and short stories have appeared in The Rumpus, Manifest-Station, Matador Review, The Coachella Review, The Creative Truth, Adelaide, Litro, Angels Flight—Literary West, TreeHouse Arts, Persephone’s Daughters, Fourth and Sycamore, Nixes Mate, Scarlet Leaf Review, Matador Review, and many others. She was recently awarded an MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts. Her work is at www.pammunter.com.