Josna Rege

215. Remembering Mrs. Metzger

In 1970s, 2010s, Education, Immigration, Inter/Transnational, people, reading, Stories, United States, women & gender, Words & phrases, Work, writing on June 24, 2013 at 4:02 pm
from the Murivian, Brookline High School, 1971

Margaret Metzger (photo by Jonathan Posin—Murivian, 1971)

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.

Margaret Metzger (from the Murivian, Brookline High School yearbook, 1971)

Margaret Metzger (from the Murivian, Brookline High School yearbook, 1971)

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.

(from The Boston Globe)

(from The Boston Globe)

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.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

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  1. Sad, yet so deeply inspiring, Josna. I think most of us have met a Mrs Metzger in our lives. What gifts they were and are. My Mrs. Metzger was Mrs Barret, also an English teacher.

  2. How can a teacher not love this story, Josna?! So sad that you never were able to make contact in recent years, but somehow she must have known that you would go far!

    • Although she gave praise when praise was due, she also knew my weaknesses all too well. And they remain my weaknesses–aargh! Your comment also reminds me that it is always a good thing to thank someone or to tell them how much you admire them and their work. My father-in-law once wrote a fan letter to a composer whose piece he’d seen performed. They became friends, and years later, after the composer died, his widow told my father-in-law that his was the only fan letter her husband had ever received. There are so many times when we think of reaching out to someone and then let the impulse fade and the moment slip by.

  3. It is a huge thing to become memorable – for the right reasons – in the minds of children (and adults) whose lives we have touched. We constantly have opportunities to gift our attributes to others. Wonderfully clear writing as ever Josna. You make it look simple but it takes a sure touch. E

    • Thank you, E. I like the thought that we offer insights, skills, ways of behaving, to each other all the time, and that we can look at these offerings, whether deliberate or accidental, as tremendous opportunities.

  4. Enjoyed this piece very much, Josna. Mrs. Metzger is a wonderful teacher who left you with a precious and memorable experience. She taught writing in a most effective way–sharing her writing with her students. Do you do that? You could share your blogs with your students. You are such a talented writer, and your students need to be exposed to your works.

    Do you know if she published her novel?

    • Thank you, Sartaz. You know, I didn’t consider the possibility that Mrs. Metzger’s sharing of her novel-in-progress might have been a way of teaching writing; I just thought that it was a little reward at the end of a class, when we got to just sit back and listen. She never used the novel to start a conversation about her writing choices. But she certainly was modeling her love of writing and her willingness to write vividly, with courage and humor. And now I come to think of it, she was treating us like peers and showing us that she too was willing to take risks. Thanks, too, for your encouragement to share my stories.
      I havent heard whether she ever published that novel, but I hope to find out.

  5. What a lovely tribute, Jojo!
    You are so right, we should go ahead and obey our inner promptings to reach out and thank or tell special people how much we appreciate their wisdom and ability to teach us
    important things that can help to shape our very lives.
    We are so fortunate when such people come into our lives and provide us with such
    beautiful examples.
    Thank you for this one!

  6. What a lovely tribute! One of my most inspiring teachers taught algebra — not my strong suit, then or now, but he was patient with my struggles and was also the school drama director. The unexpected mix of math and dramatic arts showed my teenage self that we don’t have to be all one way or the other.

    Another was Miss Ramsey, my art teacher. Not beautiful (even a little strange looking, really), but flamboyant in her odd way: always black skirt, sweater, and stockings, her long black hair held back with black or red yarn. She let us have the run of the art room and helped us to do whatever we wanted in whatever medium we chose; she also gave guidance and made suggestions. She was a supremely good listener. By the time I found her over the internet a few years ago, she had just died, so, like you, I didn’t get to say the thank you I wanted to. However, I was able to connect with a young artist who knew her in her final days, and also saw in an on-line message board for her that other students had exactly the same feeling I had. We all thought we were a favorite!

    • “We all thought we were a favorite!”
      That’s a mark of a good teacher, I think. Not playing favorites, but being able to recognize and connect with each student as an individual. Miss Ramsey sounds like one of a kind. Last weekend I attended the retirement party of my friend Ruth, who had been a K-2 art teacher for 20 years in the Gardner Schools. The tributes from her students were so moving. She gave each of them the confidence to create art and to see themselves as artists, and that confidence carried over and forward into all areas of their life.
      I’m sorry you missed telling Miss Ramsay in person, but I’m sure she knew that you appreciated her, and am glad that you were able to communicate with others who felt similarly about her. The Internet must be given credit for allowing us to make these kinds of connections.

  7. I love the Snoopy in the first picture, by the way. That really takes me back!

    • I do too, Sarah. Doesn’t it just capture that time? Would there be a Snoopy poster in a high-school English classroom today?

  8. […] fTell Me Another is a blog I consider myself lucky to have chanced upon. The blog does not reveal much about the author except that she, Josna Rege, is going to tell stories. The structure of the blog is somewhat randomized perhaps to emulate some kind of spontaneity of the sequence of stories of the author’s life experiences as they come. She seems to have lived in at least three continents (India, England and the US), is well-read in British literature and children’s books amongst other things (I can tell) and has both an analytical and a creative mind. Here’s a great example about her high-school teacher: Remembering Mrs. Metzger. […]

    • Thank you, you’re very kind to recommend Tell Me Another to bottledworder‘s vast readership. This story is rather a sad one, written as it was just after I had received the news of my teacher’s death, but Mrs. Metzger would have like to know that it was drawing the interest of writers and lovers of writing.

  9. I loved this story, just reading about inspiring people is inspiring, and Mrs Metzger’s influence lives on.
    You’ve made me think about my Mrs Metzger, a distinguished middle-aged academic who taught me at school in Malaya… the first time I used naked – as in naked truth, he made me go and look up the dictionary. I made sure I knew the meaning of every word I used after that !

    • Thank you for your comment and for the story of your Mrs. Metzger. He was so right to remind his students how often they–we–use words with no thought at all of their actual meaning. I wonder, too, whether he made you look up “naked” so as to drive he his point by making you feel embarrassed or ashamed. Perhaps without realizing it, you were using it metaphorically and he wanted to remind you of its literal meaning.
      Your story reminds me of another English teacher in one of the high schools I attended in England, who was rather avant-garde. I remember once that when a student wrote, “She waded into the water up to her bust,” she struck out “bust” and replaced it with “breasts,” reprimanding the student for false prudery.

      • Oh yes, my mentor would have done that, he’d say use ‘chuck’ instead of throw – good Anglo-Saxon words he insisted were the best to use…
        No I think with naked, he wanted me to realise that it was an in-accurate cliche…
        The best thing he did for me was to set a piece of Elizabethan prose, – Bacon, Donne and the like – every day, and make me do a precis a third of the length,. It taught me so much – the use of words, and how to compress meaning with no unnecssary frills, simple sentences and short Anglo-Saxon words, he’d say.
        I still had the Oxford Book of English Prose with the passages marked, so I gave the same exercises to my children and grand-children and their writing improved out of sight !!
        I love this correspondence !!!

  10. I feel enormous gratitude for your piece about Margaret. These stories about her have been an integral part of my mourning. We shared the last thirteen years together and, in spite of her illness, they were joyful, nourishing and inspiring. She often regaled me about her students, her short dresses and her devotion to teaching, yet, I never heard about the freshman year roommate who worked as a prostitute. Margaret was such a story teller and loved to include surprising details but this was a missing link. I found myself wondering if the story were true and then verified it with her sister. All true.

    One of Margaret’s core classes with her seniors was about gratitude and the importance of telling people how much they impacted you. Writing gratitude letters was a key assignment as important as their college essays.

    The novel was not completed. Margaret always believed that her talent lay in teaching and writing about teaching. Maybe I’ll find some remnant in the many boxes and files that remain.

    Thank you again.

    • Dear Barbara,

      Thank you very much for having written. I am so moved. Glad, too, to know that my memories were more-or-less accurate and that you recognize the Margaret they describe as the Margaret you love. How wonderful that her sister was able to confirm that story, told to us 42+ years ago! You see what an impression she made? (If you ever found that unfinished novel, I would love to read it.) Hearing that this small tribute gives some comfort to you makes me feel a little less awful about having failed to write to express my gratitude to her in time.
      If it’s not too intrusive I will email you so that you have my email address, just in case you ever wanted to contact me privately.
      Thank you for having reached out to me, and please accept my deepest sympathy.

      Warm regards,

      Josna

  11. […] Three of us classmates, Caren, Gail and I, took the trolley in together, and our English teacher, Mrs. Metzger, had said that she would give us credit if we wrote an essay on the experience. (She was that kind […]

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