Read Old Man Scanlon

Books Unread

21 September 2009

Grace Bride was my fourth-grade teacher, ancient beyond my young power to reckon age (she was in fact 68). Her twin, Gertrude, inevitably known as Dirty Gertie, taught in the upper grades. The two had an older sister, Mary, a piano teacher, according to the 1920 and 1930 United States censuses. The fourth grade rumor mill reported that the twins kept her in the attic under lock and key because she was crazy. Though not likely capable of such barbarity, they were fearsome steely-eyed spinster schoolmarms of the old mold, both continuing to serve as substitute teachers during their retirement. In later years I had Gertrude as a substitute; she was more volatile than Grace, enough so that the stories of crazy Mary seemed faintly plausible. One dared not cross either Miss Bride. Though we lived in awe of Miss Grace, she had a smile—rare, granted—that would melt ice, and I doubt any of us suffered post-traumatic stress disorder from her disciplined fourth grade teaching.

The Brides were Catholics. Even in North Attleboro, in the southeastern Massachusetts backwaters where I grew up, Catholics were not rare, so I am at a loss why the sisters were well-known for their Catholicism. Perhaps it was their devoutness, but I'm sure lingering old Yankee suspicion of Irish and French Catholic newcomers contributed. Remember that this was at the time that John F. Kennedy's relationship with the Pope caused alarm, even here in his home state.

In today's regime of "zero tolerance" in schools—that is, the official explicit abandonment of common sense and judgment—imagine the brouhaha, the umbrage taken, the outraged lawsuits, were Miss Bride to tell her fourth-graders that they could find in the Bible everything they needed to know about life. Imagine, too, how this statement electrified me fifty years ago when she actually did say so. The secrets of life all in one convenient book? Who wouldn't be on fire to start reading, to imbibe it all? Whatever misgivings my parents had they kept to themselves, so I unearthed our Bible, and went directly to page one. As might have been predicted, this did not end well. I expected instant gratification. I admit I was impatient. After a couple of pages of tough sledding there seemed to be no prospect whatsoever of my gaining any wisdom too dangerous to handle; thus the Bible lost its charm and became the first book I did not read cover-to-cover after I picked it up. More's the shame, bedrock of the canon that it is.

Four or five years later the next such book was Mary Baker Eddy's Science and Health. My mother had related how one of her college housemates whiled away the time during a putative appendicitis attack by having her mother read Science and Health to her over the telephone. The story intrigued, outré though it was, so I biked to the Christian Science Reading Room in Attleboro and got my hands on a copy. Once again I plowed straight in and got an unexpected, cold-shower dose of God and prayer. Including the word "science" in the title of such a book struck me as ignorant or disingenuous; piqued, I slammed it shut. Still, the trip was not a total loss—I'd been able to hang around the railroad station and watch trains for a while.

At about the same age, I racked up a third book—but not the Koran, as I learned the name of a Moslem's holy book, nor any other sacred text. (If memory serves, it was The Worm Ouroboros, richly deserving the honor.) Also I clipped and mailed a coupon to the Rosicrucians, who baited me with, basically, unlimited power. I wish I could say that my expectations had matured, but I was disappointed that this outfit turned out not to be some kind of proto-Jedi order: they wanted me to pay them for the knowledge of the universe. It should have tipped me off that their modest ad, probably from Modern Photography or Popular Electronics, was tucked in next to the tempting offer of X-ray spectacles which enabled one to see through women's clothes. The First Law of the Knowledge of the Universe is, if you have it, you don't need to sell it to all comers. And a corollary: it would offend you to do so.