Wednesday, March 28, 2012

My Mom, Post 3 . . . with love and squalor

These photos were taken on a student trip to the British Isles in the late eighties.

Mom was always teaching.  Always.  If she is to be known as a storyteller, she must also be remembered for being a teacher - the two were interchangeable with her.  She was a master teacher and a consummate  storyteller and she moved seamlessly between the two consistently through her life.  If she had been robbed of her ability to weave stories, she could not have taught; and I suspect that if she had been unable to teach, she would not have told stories.  

Mary George Dean Murphy did not 'take on' the role of teacher;  she was 'in part' at all times.  She was never not teaching; it's what she did.  We joked with her about it all of the time.  My sister and I would pretend to be mad, and exclaim again and again, "we are not your students - this is not school!"  At the time, we didn't know how wrong we were . . . we were her students and we were in school.   We had her lessons, free for the taking, whenever we wanted them.  I guess everyone everywhere is guilty at one time or another of missing out on something that is there for the taking; and at this point in my life, I would give anything to be 'back at school.'

Early in my life, we lived in Milledgeville, Georgia where my Dad was doing an internship at the state hospital.  I was born there; and though I once thought that was somewhat embarrassing (because of the oft-told jokes about the mental hospital) I have grown to appreciate it.  I have come to appreciate that I was born in the hospital where Flannery O'Connor had died just days before.  Mom had appreciated the writer's residence there, too, and she did her first graduate thesis about O'Connor.  In preparing these posts, I found an old letter, revealing something I had never known - Mom was actually the first ever student to be admitted into the graduate studies program at Georgia College.  

After you've read Mom's story below you'll realize why I'm sharing her relationship with Milledgeville - it's crazy how  parts of one's life can all come together in startling ways. 

Today I share with you another gift from Mom.  This is a piece that she wrote years ago mid-way through her teaching career.  It illustrates how very much she cared about her students and how she touched them in ways that stayed with them forever.  It grew to mean so much to my mother and she gave it to her graduating seniors each spring.  

I was at the football game that my Mom refers to in this story.  I knew nothing of the pain of the boy in the story.  To me, he was a hilarious 'streaker' at the time that 'streaking' was sweeping the nation and making us all laugh.  I had no idea what my mother knew.  I had no idea the work she was doing with one hurting life.  When she shared the story with us years later, I was not at all surprised at her dedication, but I've spent a lot of time making sense of how hard it must have been to be present as a mother at the same time that she was being present with a suffering student.  That was a struggle Mom knew a lot about.  

I trust that you'll enjoy another story written by my mother and that it will give you a deeper sense of her dedication.  

                                                          “With Love and Squalor”

     The night of the day his mother died, he screamed out his unaccepted pain by dropping his band uniform during the football half-time show and streaking across the field, running from policemen, climbing a chain-length fence, and cutting his naively naked body in a public display of his private naked pain.  In the stands, I felt his flesh tear as his pain exploded.  He had been my own “Catcher in the Rye” since the first day he sulked into my classroom that fall, now fifteen years ago.  So, for that and for other associations I will always make of him with Salinger, I’ll call him now my “Holden Caulfield.”

     Although he never left my memory, his poignant image came back last year, crashing through my complacent attitude -- that students remember little of our efforts.  He was brutally misplaced by fate to be the son of a military attorney, who was the personification of military law and related to all things with its jurisdiction.  But Holden’s every thought and action was an exception to even the most inclusive laws.  And of course, he was no easier to teach than to parent.  But after one conference with his father, I developed an empathy for Holden’s predicament and determined that I would not play “big nurse” to his McMurphy.”  (We were reading One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest at the time.) 

     He liked to write, and I accepted that on his own terms.  I agreed to his changing almost every assignment I ever gave, but when he changed it, I demanded that he pursue his own topic to lengths he was capable of and secretly wanted to try but had never pursued because his ideas usually cut him off before he got started, from his superiors and evaluators at school as well as at home.  Rarely have a I been as aware of a student’s talent and sensitivity and trying, emotionally draining strain it put on me.  Rarely, or perhaps never, have I stuck with a painful task as I did with him.

     But the task he faced that year was staggering.  His early 70’s hippie life style and value system demanded his father’s “finest hour” of military control, which resulted in ultimatums Holden refused to consider sacred.  The father, who prided himself on consistently following the offense with the consequence, turned Holden out with the adamant message that he would not be accepted back except by his slavish persona an suffered silently and wrote out of his pain.

     That year his mother died slowly of cancer.  He never moved back home because he refused to accept the conditions and the conditions never changed.  The mother died in the pain of separation from her son; the son lived in the guilt and pain of separation from his mother; the father was consistent.  So with no other outlet for or recognition of his unaccepted pain, he forced a massed crowd at the football stadium to watch him bare his private body and soul as he streaked across the field and over the fence into the arms of the civil law if not the arms of his father’s military law.

     Afterwards, he went to jail and called no one, but he wrote.  Monday, the school was informed that the father had Holden remain in jail until after his mother’s funeral so that her memory would not be disgraced with another disrespectful act.  I went to the jail that afternoon, not because I was comfortable with it, but because I feared no one else would.  He cried that afternoon as his mother was buried, and he cried other afternoons in my room after school, and he wrote, and I read.  As long as I knew him, he never went home. 

     Of course, I was aware that I was out of my element as a teacher, but I was also aware that I had accepted this role.  I juggled my awarenesses through his senior year.  The last week of school I gave my seniors, as was my custom, a literary graduation gift.  As I remembered, my files reveal that that year I gave them a photostatic copy of J. D. Salinger’s short story “For Esme--with Love and Squalor” with this attached note:

I wanted to write something for your graduation, but daily matters crowded out my good intentions.  It’s sad that I, like Eliot’s Prufrock, often feel that “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons” (and red marks on papers).  But, on the other hand, didn’t somebody say something like “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, else what’s a heaven for”?  I guess it will be even sadder when I stop reaching and only aim at a coffee spoon and red marks existence.  At any rate, I’m glad I found a way to share with you one of my favorite short stories, J. D. Salinger’s “For Esme--with Love and Squalor.”

If Joyce is right that literature is a reflection of life, then it should reflect life as it is--good and bad--man’s brotherhood to man and man’s inhumanity to man--the beauty of life and the ugliness of life--the heroes of life and the anti-heroes of life-the experience of love and the experience of squalor.  This is a story of a precocious British schoolgirl and a World War ll American soldier, both of whom had to face more squalor than they deserved.

At the conclusion of the story, I attached this note:

     I’m afraid it will do no good to wish for you a life untouched by squalor.  You will surely have to face it somewhere.  What I do wish is that you will be fortunate enough to have someone reach through the squalor of life with love for you and that you will find a way to reach through the squalor of life with love for others.  I think that love is ultimately stronger than squalor and that love, as the story says is what keeps our f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s intact.”
                                                                                                          With Love,
                                                                                                           Mary Murphy

Holden was one of the students I never heard from after graduation.  I assumed that his life continued to be one at odds with authority figures, but I hoped time had erased some of the pain of this most vulnerable period of his alienation which I had shared with him.  Then recently, current students of mine, traveling though the state, stopped at the Pizza Hut in the town of the state hospital for the mentally and emotionally ill.  Talking and laughing about some silliness I had pulled in the classroom, they attracted the attention of three men who appeared to be patients from the nearby state hospital, one of whom turned to my students’ booth and asked if the teacher he heard them discussing had once taught at ____________________.  Later, as he left, he handed them this note on a Pizza Hut napkin. 

If you've not heard 'timshel', you might enjoy researching its place in literature.  Then check out the song below.  Mom would have loved this song - by Mumford and Sons.  I can just see her using it in her classes, the way she used Simon, Garfunkel and so many other 'co-teachers' to help give her students the gifts of literature.

And then I hope you'll make the time to read Salinger's story "To Esme, With Love and Squalor."  Mom would like that!


  1. Mary Murphy. One. Cool. Lady.
    ...who impacted many.

  2. Kaki: This is such an amazing story and one so illustrative of your mom's unusual gift as a teacher. I imagine there are many other Holdens somewhere she never knew about as dramatically as she knew the one in this story, other students whose lives she touched in such significant ways.
    You mentioned here that she was the first to be admitted into graduate study at Ga College. Another academic first was that she was the first person to graduate with a Master of Arts in Teaching from Ga State University in Atlanta.
    She is loving how you have carried on her legacy--teaching in so many ways. Love, Dad

  3. Deana,
    This was a wonderful tribute to your Mom whom I knew at LaGrange College years ago. She was an extraordinary teacher and mentor to the Holden Caulfields of her classrooms. He was fortunate she was in his life, and I'm glad I shared a bit of it, too. I remember her well and had great respect for her. I'm glad she found her niche in teaching and touched many lives. I spent over 30 years in education myself and valued good teachers like your Mom. And BTW, I have a daughter named Mary George, albeit her grandmother is Mary and her father is George, but we probably would never have named her that if we had not known your Mom. Best wishes, Deana, and thanks for the good memories.
    June Pullen Weis, Atlanta


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...