Shakespeare from Miss Whitney had been a calculated accident that went awry. I had my credits for graduation. All I needed was an elective to fill space. There were a lot of classes that would have been acceptable, and I still could have maintained my GPA. With the schedule I had my senior year, I wanted something easy for the last hour of the day. Just a filler.
At Washington High I ranked fifth in a graduating class of 509. For the last three years I had been on the honor roll with straight A’s, and there were scholarships to consider. All were reasons for keeping my grades up and taking an easy class to fill in that one elective gap.
“I know what we ought to do,” my best friend Shan Stuart suggested the second day of school as we ate in the cafeteria. “Let’s take Shakespeare from Miss Whitney.”
I laughed. “Why would I want to take Shakespeare from Whitney? Or anybody else?”
Shan thought for a moment. “Well,” he finally said, shrugging, “I figure we need a little culture.”
Cultural refinement had never been high on Shan’s list of priorities, so immediately I was dubious. “I’ve got all the culture I can handle with chemistry and trig,” I responded dryly.
“But Shakespeare will be a snap. Read a few plays,” he said. “Nothing to it.”
“What does Shakespeare have that we can’t get in wood shop?” I asked.
Shan smiled slyly. “Well …” He cleared his throat. “Penny Simms.”
“Penny …” I stopped in mid-sentence. My eyes narrowed in recollection. “She’s not the new girl, the one …”
“With the reddish blond hair,” Shan cut in dreamily, “and the blue eyes, and the smile …”
“I know who she is,” I stopped him. “If you’re dying to know her, meet her at lunch. Why sign up for a semester of Shakespeare?”
“You don’t get it, Holdaway,” Shan answered. “It’s going to be a small class. Obviously we’ll need to spend some time studying old Bill and his plays.” He grinned deviously. “A small study group of three or four after school could prove helpful. In more ways than one.”
“Just one problem. There are two of us and one of her.”
Shan shrugged and smiled, “That’s the challenge.”
“I’ll stick to wood shop.”
I don’t know how he did it, but Shan actually conned me into taking Miss Whitney’s Shakespeare class. And all because of Penny Simms.
“So what brings you to Shakespeare?” Miss Whitney asked coolly, looking down at our add cards. Shan and I stood in front of her desk, fidgeting. This was Shan’s idea, so I was determined to let him do the talking.
“Do you have a genuine interest in Shakespeare?” she asked, taking off her glasses. She had commanding blue eyes that latched onto us.
I had seen Miss Whitney around school and had always thought her to be rather plain. She was in her mid-30s, probably an inch or so taller than I am, and trim. Up close her plainness was no longer prominent. In fact, as she looked up at us, I detected a shade of beauty behind the scholarly sternness.
All during my high school career I had steered clear of her English classes because it was rumored that she didn’t give anything higher than a B, unless, of course, the student could walk on water, academically speaking. I figured that in her Shakespeare class, though, it being an elective and all, she would loosen up and I would be able to pull my A without a sweat.
“Michael and I were just talking yesterday,” Shan began. I could tell he was about to launch into one of his famous snow jobs. “We were saying how little we know about Shakespeare. We’ll be getting ready to go to college in a year, and we really aren’t familiar with one of history’s greatest writers.” He folded his arms and pursed his lips, deep in thought. “I guess what it boils down to is that we want a more balanced education.”
“How admirable,” she commented, leaning back in her chair and biting down on her glasses. “Rarely do we see that kind of intellectual drive in our students these days. It will be a privilege to have you in class,” she replaced her glasses and signed Shan’s add card. I waited for her to do the same to mine, but she handed Shan his card, and then turned to me. “And, Mr. Holdaway, what is your interest here?”
I was taken by surprise. “Well,” I laughed half-heartedly, “Shan explained it pretty good.”
“Yes, he expressed himself quite well.” She emphasized the well and I made a mental note to be more careful with my grammar when speaking to her. “I would like to know how you feel.”
I groped for words as her penetrating gaze bore into me. “I thought it would be a … well, you know,” I stammered. “A good challenging course for an elective. Some real meat and potatoes so to speak.” I forced myself to grin. She wasn’t amused. “I want to expand my knowledge and understanding,” I pushed on lamely, wondering why she didn’t just take Shan’s word for everything.
“So your main reason is learning?”
“And if things become difficult?”
I was insulted by the insinuation. “I’ve handled tough classes before,” I said. “Schoolwork comes easy enough for me.”
“You’ve never taken a class from me,” she pointed out.
“I can handle the load,” I bragged, suddenly irritated.
“Then if things get tough, you won’t just back out of Shakespeare?”
“No,” I declared, “I won’t back out. I can handle any class at Washington High. Even yours.”
She smiled, actually smiled as she picked up my card, signed it, and handed it back to me. “I demand work.”
“I’ve done all right so far,” I said, still simmering. “I’m not exactly at the bottom of the class.”
“She’s as bad as everybody said,” I muttered to Shan as we walked down the hall afterward.
“Penny Simms will sweeten things up for us.”
The following day, seventh hour, Shan and I swaggered into class and dropped into the back corner seats. The class was small, only 16 of us, and within minutes we discovered that Penny Simms was noticeably absent.
Miss Whitney called the roll. Penny’s name wasn’t on it. As Miss Whitney took the absentee slip to the door, Shan raised his hand and asked, “What happened to Penny Simms?”
“Penny withdrew from class this morning,” Miss Whitney said simply.
“I can’t believe it,” Shan grumbled as we left class. “We juggle our schedules to accommodate her and she backs out on us.”
I was amused and laughed. “Maybe you should have talked to Penny to see if our change met with her approval.”
“Well, if anybody thinks I’m going to endure Miss Whitney for my cultural enjoyment, they’re crazy. I’m getting out.”
“But we just got in.”
“I’ll find a way. We have until the end of the week to change classes.”
By noon the next day Shan was out of the class.
“Did she hassle you?” I asked him.
“Didn’t say a word. Just signed the withdrawal slip and wished me luck.”
I attended Miss Whitney’s class that afternoon, but I worked on my trig all hour because I had a withdrawal slip ready for her to sign. I had almost resigned myself to the challenge of Miss Whitney, to prove to her that I wasn’t afraid of her, but I finally concluded it would be easier and safer to get out now. I had a big enough load as it was.
“Leaving so soon?” she asked as I handed her the withdrawal slip.
“My schedule is heavier than I thought,” I said without looking at her.
“You’re a Mormon, aren’t you?”
I wet my lips, surprised by the question. “Yes.”
“I knew another young man of your faith. He wasn’t nearly as talented as you. But he was honest. Completely honest. I don’t mean to imply that Mormons have a monopoly on honesty, but this particular young man’s most striking characteristic was his honesty. That always impressed me.” She looked up at me. “You remind me of that young man.
“The other day when you and Shan came in here, you couldn’t lie to me. You were willing to remain silent and let Shan lie for you, but you wouldn’t lie.” I could feel my cheeks glow warmly, and I shuffled my feet. “Do you realize,” she continued, “that the other day when I allowed you into my class, you promised to stay?”
“I said I wanted to get into the class, but I …”
“No,” she cut in, “you promised to stay, regardless of the work.”
“Miss Whitney,” I began, feeling embarrassed and frustrated but wanting to be completely up front with her since she had dragged my religion and honesty into our discussion, “I feel dumb telling you this, but the reason Shan and I wanted to get into this class was …”
“Because of Penny Simms,” she cut in.
I shrugged, and nodded. Her face didn’t change expressions.
“The fact remains, Mr. Holdaway, you promised to stay.”
“What difference does it make to you?” I asked, irritated by her insistence.
“I don’t like students running away from my class—especially good students.” She breathed deeply and shuffled some papers on the desk. “I can promise you two things if you stay. One, you’ll learn something. And two, I’ll make the learning interesting. That’s not a bad deal.”
I cleared my throat. “I don’t think you understand. I have a heavy schedule. I have a straight-A average, and I want to keep my class ranking. I have to think of a scholarship.”
“And you want all of those the easiest way possible. Do you ever wonder about learning?”
“I study all the time.”
“For grades? For class rankings? For scholarships? Do you ever study for learning’s sake?” I stared at her without answering. I wasn’t sure how to answer. “When you came to me, you wanted an easy class. Well, I don’t offer one.”
I tossed the withdrawal slip in the trash can on the way out, angry and unwilling to beg her to let me out of her class. I’d handle it, I told myself.
The first two weeks of class were easy enough. Even interesting! The first play we read was Richard the Third, and I was immediately fascinated by this villain king who had so much potential and yet chose to follow a path of willful destruction.
I had been exposed to Shakespeare in other English classes, but the study of his writings had always been dry and tedious there. Miss Whitney had an intriguing way of resurrecting characters from the tombs of the written page. The playwright and the characters were like old friends of hers. I actually found my interest sparked in her class.
But even though I read my assignments and followed the discussions with quiet fascination, I contributed very little to the class. I was sure Miss Whitney wondered if I was grasping the material, but I refused to satisfy her curiosity by opening my mouth. She’d find out how much I understood when I took her first test. And I was determined to blow the top off of it.
However, at the conclusion of Richard the Third, Miss Whitney made an announcement. “I have an aversion to tests,” she said. “Tests are inadequate for measuring a person’s understanding. I prefer a good composition. At the conclusion of each play I will ask you to write a paper. If you have read and understood the play, you should do well.”
Writing had always come easy for me. I had never had a problem in my other English classes scribbling out an A paper. I was convinced that I could do the same here. The night before the paper was due, I stayed up an hour later than usual so I could finish it.
Three days later, I got my paper back, fully expecting an A. Across the top and next to the bold red C- was scrawled, “This is not writing; this is rambling. I do not want to have to search for your meaning among the heaps of hollow verbiage. I will not allow you to peddle garbage. Even if this class is an elective!”
“What’s wrong with my paper?” I demanded as the others filed out of the room.
“You can write better than that, Mr. Holdaway.”
“Some of those others had B’s on their papers. Are theirs better than mine?”
“For you that is a C paper.”
“This would get me an A in any other class,” I came back.
“Mr. Holdaway, I don’t just give a grade. You must earn it here.”
“You’re just trying to make it tough on me because I wanted out of your class, aren’t you?” I burst out. “I need an A in this class.”
“You don’t care about learning?”
“I care about my grades.”
Miss Whitney thought for a moment. “Then you will have to earn them.”
For the next five weeks I fumed and fretted about Shakespeare. I was caught. I couldn’t drop the class without losing all credit. If I stayed in the class, I would be lucky to pull a C, unless I worked hard, harder than I’d planned for this elective. During those five weeks I wrote two more papers.
The best I could do was a C+ on my last one.
“What is this?” I demanded, exasperated as I threw my paper on her desk after class.
She looked at it and answered, “It looks like a C+.”
“Why?” I persisted.
“Your ideas are clearer now, but all you’re doing is coughing up someone else’s ideas. If you want your A, tell me what you have learned, not what you’ve been told.” The words weren’t spoken in rebuke. I detected a genuine concern on her part.
At first I resented being forced to stay in the class, but as Miss Whitney walked me through the world of Shakespeare, I began to look forward to that last hour of the day. My other classes were important to me because they were my solids; I needed them and I studied them with that objective in mind. I didn’t really need Shakespeare—except for the grade—but it was an intriguing break for me. I even accepted the compositions. It became a challenge for me to write something that Miss Whitney would accept as quality work. The turning point came while we were studying Hamlet.
All my life I had heard the famous line from Hamlet, “To thine own self be true.” For one of the first times in a class discussion my hand shot up and I burst out, “But those words are a mockery coming from Polonius. He’s not true to himself. It’s pure hypocrisy.”
“Can’t a hypocrite speak the truth?” Miss Whitney questioned.
“Sure, but all these years I thought that some great, wise person spoke those words. It’s a let-down to know that they come from … from a villain.”
“But the words are true, though the villain was not,” Miss Whitney pointed out. “Do we sometimes speak words of truth while leading lives of hypocrisy?”
The question was spoken gently, but the barb penetrated. Was I like Polonius? For my composition I chose to analyze Polonius. He fascinated me because I wondered if I would catch a glimpse of myself in his character. I went back and reread the play, not for a grade but for personal understanding. After reading it three times and reviewing parts of it many more times I was ready to write.
One full weekend I wrote. Page after page of rough draft was revised, improved, and discarded. But when Monday afternoon arrived, the paper was finished.
The following Friday the papers were turned back, face down on our desks. Curiously, even nervously, I turned mine over. A!
“I’d like to know something,” I asked at the end of class. “Did I earn this?”
Miss Whitney pursed her lips. “I don’t give anything.”
I nodded. “Thanks.”
“Don’t thank me. It’s your work.”
Swelling with pride, I turned to leave, holding the A paper in my hand.
“Mr. Holdaway,” she called. “I’ve read better student papers in my life.” Some of the pride I had felt wilted. I turned to face her. A faint smile touched her lips, and she added softly, “But not many, Mr. Holdaway. And not for a very long time. I knew you could write a paper like that.”
From then on I was determined that everything I did in that class would be my very best. I didn’t want Miss Whitney to see anything less than that.
Then one day I wrote a paper for my history class. As I read through my final draft the night before the paper was due, I remembered thinking that it would easily get me an A. But I knew that if I were to submit it in Miss Whitney’s class her red pen would bleed it pitifully. I’d be lucky to get a C+. The words from Hamlet rang in my mind: “To thine own self be true.”
It was almost ten. The paper was due second hour the next morning, but I was determined not to turn in an inferior effort. I knew I had the A, but the A wasn’t good enough. I had to turn in my best.
For the next few hours I struggled with a rewrite, not for points or grades but for pure satisfaction. And when I turned it in the following morning, still sleepy and worn out, I was satisfied.
As I went around to my classes at the end of the semester and picked up my grades, I was not disappointed. I had straight A’s in my first six hours.
Miss Whitney waited until the end of class before handing out grades. The bell rang before I received mine. I waited at my desk. When all the others had received their grade cards, she turned to me and asked me to come to her desk. We were alone. She had two grade cards in front of her.
“I have struggled with your grade,” she confessed, looking up at me. “You’ve improved tremendously. You’re not the same young man who walked in here at the beginning of the year. I usually grade the work at the end of the semester more heavily than that at the beginning. You struggled in the beginning weeks, but you’ve come a long way since then.”
She took a deep breath. “When I figured out your grade, it ended up being a B. A solid B, a high B, but a B nevertheless.” She wet her lips. “I have struggled with that. Had you taken an easy class you would have received your A. You would maintain your class ranking and not jeopardize your scholarship.”
She pressed her lips together. “I’m stingy with A’s. When I give them, I want them to mean a great deal. I coerced you into taking this class. I feel responsible. You’ve worked hard. I’d feel good giving you this.” She picked up the card to her left and handed it to me. It was an A. I studied it for a moment.
“And the other one?” I asked. She didn’t answer. I reached down and turned the other card over. Our eyes locked. I had wanted that A. A few weeks earlier that grade would have been the all-important thing, but the familiar phrase from Hamlet was anchored in my mind. I replaced the A card and picked up the B. “I only take what I earn,” I said. “It’s something I learned from you.”
Miss Whitney swallowed and blinked twice. I detected a faint mist in her eyes. “Thank you, Mr. Holdaway. I’ll keep the A for myself.”
I shrugged. “Thank you.” I smiled. “And you earned the A.” I started for the door; then stopped. “By the way,” I said, “I’ll be back next semester.”
“I was hoping you would,” she said softly, and I left the class with Miss Whitney’s B.