September, 1971, the beginning of the academic year, and twenty-five high-school seniors were already slouching at their desks, intent on acquiring the jaded attitude that seemed to be a prerequisite for the Senior Slump. This was English class, in the fall when we would have to apply to college and to write the dreaded college essays. I had been in the United States for only six months, and although English had always been my favorite subject, the near-obligatory ennui had rubbed off on me. Besides, at 16 there is so much else going on, and lessons often seem like meaningless busywork that just have to be endured while one waits for real life to begin.
We didn’t slouch for long. This new teacher made us sit up and take notice. Mrs. Metzger, as we called her then, was clean-cut, fresh-faced, had a newly minted Master’s Degree, and was 100% switched on. She told us about herself and spoke to us with respect, a winning combination for teenagers whose antennae for patronizing adults were super-sensitive. In her class, she informed us, she would not only give us academic credit for those looming college essays, but would allow us to choose the topics of our essays and research papers all year. Furthermore, she would work with each of us as individuals, crafting a mutually agreed-upon contract for our year’s work. Just as she respected us, she expected us to respect her and our contract.
In Mrs. Metzger’s class we were not high-school students, but writers. She made it clear from the outset that writing was to be our focus and, if we were anything like her, our passion. She herself was writing a novel, and, at the end of a class period, would read aloud from her autobiographical work-in-progress, making us thrill with excitement, for not only was it extremely gratifying to have a teacher read her own writing to us, but the subject was one that we couldn’t imagine any other teacher being willing to share.
The novel was about her freshman roommate in college, a brilliant, beautiful woman whose behavior baffled Margaret, a naïve student from the Midwest. This roommate went out and stayed out all hours of the night, took long and frequent showers when she was in, and never seemed to crack open a book. Yet despite this lack of attention to her studies, she was a straight-A student. The conscientious, hardworking Margaret found this terribly unfair, until she discovered her roommate’s secret for success. Apparently, she was well up on Plato’s work, and no matter what the course or the assignment, she could find a way to relate the topic to Plato. Once she launched into “As Plato says in his. . .” she was away, bowling over her professors, who were in awe of this statuesque student who carried herself with such confidence and seemed to breeze through her work so effortlessly.
It turned out that Margaret’s roommate was paying her way through college by moonlighting as a prostitute. While this was thrilling to us high-school students (who, although as sheltered as most other suburban teenagers, liked to think of ourselves as wordly), to young Margaret, the revelation, when it eventually came, was scandalous in the extreme. But although she was prepared to be judgmental at first, she found herself becoming close to this flamboyant roommate, the like of whom she had never encountered before. And eventually, although they made an odd couple, they became good friends who supported and protected each other. Quite against her will, Margaret found herself taking phone messages for her roommate, and soon discovered the vulnerable side of her that no one else was allowed to see. In turn, her new friend took Margaret under her wing and taught her things she had never learned growing up in the Midwest. I don’t know if that novel was ever published, but in us Ms. Metzger found an audience who hung on her every word.
Lest readers get the impression that the only thing we did in Senior English was listen to our teacher’s racy writing, let me hasten to set the record straight: the class was all about writing and write we did, in many different modes, all year long. We also learned the tenets of good writing. “Write what you know” and “Show, don’t tell” might have remained mere clichés if Ms. Metzger hadn’t shown us, made us show her, in practice. Although she read our essays with interest and attention, she had an unerring instinct for insincerity, pointing out words and phrases that merely took up space and zeroing on the gems of truth lost among all the loose, sloppy language. When we broke our side of the contract—she always kept hers—her disappointment filled us with shame; but when praise was merited, her approval was genuine, something to be treasured.
Forty-three years later, I still have the essays I wrote for Ms. Metzger, along with her luminous comments, both the encouraging and the chastening ones. I too have become an English teacher, and think of her whenever I hear myself echoing her watchwords or using her teaching methods. I have always tended to verbosity and, to this day, hear her voice in my head as I edit redundant language and hollow phrases. But although way back in graduate school, when I was teaching freshman composition, I came across a reprint of one of her essays and read that she had won a award, I never wrote to thank her or to tell her how much she had influenced me and what a difference she had made to my high-school experience.
I have just received sad news from my classmate Norah, who was also in that section of English 4 during our Senior year: Ms. Metzger died at the beginning of June, only 68 years old. She must have been just 26 when she faced our group of arrogant 17 and 18 year-olds and commanded such respect. After that first year, she was to have a long and distinguished teaching career at Brookline High; four decades of students had the benefit of her passionate pedagogy. My condolences go out to her family and everyone who loved her. I will always be grateful that I had the good fortune to be placed in her classroom. It is clear from the comments on her online obituary that many, many other students who came after me were profoundly touched by Margaret Treece Metzger.