Posted on: March 20, 2014
Do I feel bad? Of course I feel bad. I mean, what kind of heartless soul wouldn’t? You would have to be a monster, an unfeeling deviant of the most malicious kind, not to feel a little sorrow. But I still maintain it wasn’t my fault. Not entirely my fault anyway.
It was the third day of my freshman year when Miss Johnston first took me to task in front of the class. Well forewarned about her rigidity, I knew that my tardiness would not be tolerated, but the degree of her indignation was as shocking as the shrill timbre of her voice.
“Jacob Abbott, if you do not have the courtesy to show up on time, you will not be in this class long. Take yourself to the principal’s office.”
“I’m sorry Miss Johnston. My last class is…” I tried to catch the breath that was stolen from me by the three flights of stairs I had just bounded up.
“I do not care what your last class is, nor for any other excuses. Advanced placement classes are an honor and a privilege.”
“Please Miss Johnston, I swear…”
She cut me off with a sharp smack of her pointing stick onto her desk.
“Lest you forget young man, I taught both of your brothers and I taught your father. I know what ilk you Abbotts are, and I assure you it is not the advanced placement kind. You are walking a very fine line here. Be on time tomorrow. Good day, Mr. Abbott.”
She flashed a curt sardonic smile and I closed the door, shutting with it the notion that my good deeds had outrun my family’s tainted legacy. Miss Johnston apparently didn’t believe that some apples could indeed fall far.
Jean Johnston was an institution here in Magnolia, even more so than the block-long brick building of Gerald R. Ford High School in which she had taught for so long. So long in fact, that when she taught her first class, the eponymous Mr. Ford was still twenty-six years away from his rapid ascendance to the Presidency. Back then the school was known as Hall County High, and Harry Truman was Commander in Chief. Through ten more presidents, through Korea, Vietnam and Desert Storm, through desegregation and the civil rights movement, surviving Miss Johnston became a teenage rite of passage. For fifty-five long and arduous years, Miss Johnston hawkishly patrolled the hallways and made life hell in room 301.
In those first few years, there was much speculation around town about Miss Johnston. She came up to Magnolia from Charleston, answering an ad in the Ledger for teachers. When asked about her family, she would only divulge that they had passed on. She joined the Methodist church, but didn’t participate in the all day affair of communion and community. Miss Johnston was only interested in the message, arriving just before the sermon and leaving just as quickly.
Adding to the speculation was her self-imposed spinsterhood. Twenty-two and single when she arrived, it was surmised around town that she would be married quickly. Suitors came from all around Magnolia, only to be sent on their way. Behind closed doors, the old guard of Magnolia bandied about terms like “uppity” and “snobbish” and even whispered of the love that dare not speak its name.
But as the years progressed, so did the attitudes and values of the townsfolk. The chauvinism of the forties and fifties erupted into the personal liberation of the sixties and seventies. And by the turn of the century, an aloof, seemingly asexual, professional woman wasn’t quite the scandal that it once was. Miss Johnston was mostly forgotten, except by us, the scarred students left in her wake.
After the dressing down I had received two months prior, I made it a priority to arrive to class early. One day, the sight of Miss Johnston conferring with Principal Rogers at her desk greeted me. As the other students filed in, he handed me a note.
“What do you know about this, Jacob?”
It featured a rough caricature of a batty old woman. Written underneath was Miss Johnston IS Miss Emily.
I had to stifle a laugh. We had just finished reading Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily”, his classic tale about the death of an eccentric elderly southern woman.
“Miss Johnston found this on her floor yesterday,” said Principal Rogers.
“The AP class is the only class that is reading that story. He…” She came around the desk and got in my face. “Is the only one capable of doing such a despicable thing.”
“What?” I was exasperated. “I didn’t draw that. Look at it. That’s some pretty feminine handwriting.”
“I know you did it, you little punk.” Her voice dripped with scorn. “You may have all of the others fooled, but you can’t fool me.”
I tried to appeal to Principal Rogers.
“See, this is what she does, what she has been doing all semester. She assumes that because my last name is Abbott that I am the only one is this class capable of doing anything wrong!”
I turned back to face my accuser.
“I am not anything like my brothers… I am not close to my brothers… I have no idea what it is that they did to you that you obviously can’t get over, but I am sick of it!”
“You are vermin, just like them,” she hissed.
“I didn’t draw it, but you know what? I agree with it. And I bet everyone else here does too. YOU ARE A CRAZY OLD BITCH.”
Her pointing stick came whistling through the air and smacked me right across my cheek, leaving a gash under my left eye. She realized immediately what she had done. Tears welled up in her eyes.
“Oh my… I’m… I’m…”
She fled the room as fast as her seventy-seven year old body could go.
By the end of the day the entire school was abuzz with what happened. Miss Johnston was suspended indefinitely. I was sent home and told to take a couple of days off, so I wasn’t there the next morning when they found her, sitting at her desk.
They couldn’t say for sure it was suicide, though that’s what most of the people around here thought. The autopsy proved inconclusive, and she left no note. Unless you count the blackboard. Scrawled across it, in varying degrees of legibility, was just one repeated phrase. Not a rose for Emily, my darling dear.
Me? I guess I like to think that she was a tired old woman who had just lost the only thing that she had ever had, and that she died of a broken heart. That way it wasn’t my fault.
Written by: Ben Cook
Photograph by: Emily Blincoe
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
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