Saturday, April 3, 2010

Ruth Demarest Godfrey: The Teacher Who Would

In my dreams, I get to be whoever I want, and I want to be Studs Terkel. (I also want to be Beryl Markham, but that's another story.) I was twenty years old in 1974, the year Studs published Working, and perhaps because I myself knew so little about the world of work (a world I was soon to enter), I read the book from cover to cover. Working has one of the longest subtitles ever: "People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do." It's a subject I find endlessly fascinating—and though I will never be another Studs, I do get to hear a lot of good stories about life on the job. "The Teacher Who Would" is one of my all-time favorites.

Ruth Godfrey was the kind of teacher you remember—in a good way—for the rest of your life. After graduating from UVM in 1942, she taught music in thirteen small rural schools in central Vermont, driving to her appointments in a second-hand Austin (shown below). "The teaching part of the job was very pleasant and I enjoyed it," she recalls. "Not so the traveling part! Between the place where I lived and my first school, there were three miles of cement road. If I left on my chains for those three miles they would soon have broken cross chains and these would whack against the fenders and tear them to pieces. However, there were a lot of dirt roads in my district and I needed tire chains for those. I became very adept at flopping down wherever I was (in my working clothes, ski pants, and jacket) to put on the chains or take them off."

Having grown up in a musical family where recitals and "skits" were a frequent form of entertainment, Ruth had no fear of embarrassing herself in the cause of amusing others, particularly if the others were children. In New Jersey, where she taught after she was married, she quickly became known as "the teacher who would. Almost anything. Any time, if it involved assuming a role." In time, her reputation spread to neighboring schools, particularly after the following incident:

Halloween was a great time for me. My objective was always to make myself unrecognizable. I was usually successful. I would go into my office and don my costume after the kids started their classroom parties. They did not see me do this, and after I came out they did not recognize me. One time, however, a kid got really close, stared through the holes in my head mask, and said, “Those look like Mrs. Demarest’s eyes!” 

One year, while the kids were busy with their Halloween parties, I decided to visit one of the other schools. I think I looked really ghoulish. I had stuffed my mouth with cotton so my voice would be unrecognizable. Walking into the office of a secretary I knew well, I started poking around without saying anything. She was terrified and called the principal on the phone. She said:

“There’s something in my office and I don’t know what it wants. Please call the police.”

I left the office and met the principal hurrying down the hall. He stopped me and demanded that I identify myself. I tried, but I had stuffed my mouth so thoroughly that I could not make him understand what I was saying. I persisted, and finally he realized who I was and shouted with laughter. Poor Kay had really been terrified. She told me later, “I didn’t know what kind of thing had got in the school or what it would do to me.” I went outside on the playground and watched the kids doing their hobgoblin parade. I was standing right next to a man I knew well, but he had no idea who I was and I didn’t try to tell him.

For the rest of "The Teacher Who Would" (starting with the "medicine man" incident illustrated by Tex, above), click on "Read more," below.

Walking into the teachers' lounge one morning before classes began . . . teachers' lounge very crowded and noisy, with many conversations going on, everyone having coffee and girding for the day . . . Rhonda, seeing me walk through the door, says hopefully, “I don’t suppose you would be willing to be the medicine man for my Thanksgiving show?”

It seems Rhonda had asked everyone there and no one was willing. Now, however, she caused a different reaction. I wasn't in the least worried about making a fool of myself. I said, "Why sure, Rhonda, when will that be?"
"You will?" Rhonda replied, obviously flabbergasted. "It's next Friday."

"Okay," said I, and the deed was done. Now, I was faced with the task of assembling a medicine-man sort of costume. What in the world could I wear?

Over the next few days, I found myself thinking about a song my mom had taught me when I was a small girl. The name of it was “Hiya, Heya, Keetchimanido, I Am the Medicine Man,” and I could remember every word of it. It started resounding through my brain and keeping me company while I focused on the outward appearance I could achieve that would resemble an Indian medicine man. I decided to wear a black leotard (I was slender then) and borrow a fur jacket, because Indians wore fur clothing, didn’t they? The only fur jacket I was able to find, however, was partly fur and partly leather. It looked to me like nothing but a very worn animal skin with some of the fur still on it. Then I made something that was supposed to be a short skirt, such as a hula dancer might wear. I have no idea from whence this idea came, but after all there was nothing to say that this Indian might not be from the Caribbean somewhere. I made it by finding an old piece of gold material and cutting it into vertical strips. This went around the waist over the leotard and just to the edge of the jacket, which was short. I decided to go barefoot.

Now, although I didn’t really mind making a fool of myself, there were going to be parents there and I wasn’t anxious to have everyone know who was in that costume. How to get my head and face under cover? The art classes had been making masks from cardboard boxes, with no eyes, hideously painted in the ways that very small children might elect to paint them. I went to the classes where the masks were displayed and selected one I liked that would go over my head. I asked the child’s permission to make eyeholes in it. I was ready!

“Rhonda,” I said, “How will I know when it is time to come into your room for my performance?”

“Someone will open the door slightly when it is time.”

The fateful day came. I canceled my appointments for an hour and got dressed. I could see the door to Rhonda’s room from my doorway, and I kept a careful eye on the door. I was getting very, very warm. That jacket, ugly as it was, was very warm.

Finally, the door opened a crack. I rushed across the hall and tried to open it further, only to have someone push it closed, saying, “No. Not yet. Wait a minute.”

I waited some more, very warm.

At last, the door opened and in I went, singing as I entered and dancing in a very Indian-like way:

Hi-ya, hee-yah
I am the medicine man.
Evil spirits cast a spell,
I have come to make you well.
Hi-yah, hee-yah,
I am the medicine man.

The kids were applauding me wildly and our principal was falling off his chair laughing. The perspiration was running down my face. I was getting out of breath, because the kids insisted that I go around the circle again and again. Finally, I just couldn’t do it again and I danced out of the room and back into my own.

I was a resounding success!

Later, Joe, our principal, called me to his office and told me it was one of the funniest things he had ever seen. He said he had no idea who was in the costume and finally wrested the information from Rhonda.
I was asked by my friend the music teacher if I would play Santa in a Christmas program she was doing. "Sure," I said. I was slender at the time and assumed that there would be stuffing. There was a beautiful Santa suit, but no stuffing. On the appointed day, I dressed myself in the Santa suit, beard and all. I cinched the broad, black belt around my 27-inch (at the time) waist, grabbed up my little bell and pranced into the room to the music of "Have a holly, jolly Christmas." One observant, savvy kid said, "That can't be Santa! Santa isn't skinny!"

Arriving at a PTO function, I was met at the door. "We have chosen you to be our Statue of Liberty. Will you?"

"Sure," I replied.

They took me into one of the classrooms, painted my face, hands, and arms a moldy-looking green, clad me in a gauzy gown, handed me a book and a torch, and voila, I was the Statue of Liberty. I did not sing or dance, I just stood, looking majestic.

1 comment:

John Russell said...

Mrs. Demarest, I think I may have found you, I am glad you are alive so I can tell you this. I was a student you worked with 38 years ago in Peter Cooper school. I struggled in school and you were there to help the ones who were struggling, I was surrounded by specialists trying to get at what was wrong and teachers who felt I was a conundrum but you were the ONLY adult that treated me like there was nothing wrong with me and conveyed a sense of radically loving acceptance for who I was. Life was a struggle after I knew you for decades but now I work with adults who have autism and some call me "the client whisperer" but it isn't some technique of methodology, no, you showed me how to be loving instead of being clinical and I paid it forward to the people I work with. I found only one person like you in my entire life with such a loving spirit behind their teaching and I married her.

Thank you for everything that you have done for me, John Russell