{December 12, 2012}   Mr. L’effete


Mr. L’effete was my eleventh grade English literature teacher. He was a small-boned man with a long, sharp nose that reminded me of a bird. His voice and mannerisms were refined and his pronunciation sounded slightly British, which drew the attention of the red-blooded, truck-racing, Nascar-loving jocks at my school.  There was a rumor going around school that Mr. L’effete was gay–a subject of discussion that never came up among my friends or family. There were a couple of boys in my neighborhood that were gay, although no one ever talked about it. One boy, Dorsey, dressed up in women’s clothes every year on Halloween since he was twelve. He was more attractive than a lot of girls in his heavy makeup and blonde wig. He even managed to walk from house to house in high heels to trick or treat. He’d come by our house holding a purse and wearing a sequined dress, to the delight of my mother. “You make such a beautiful girl!” she gushed. She’d rush to her room to find the camera and snap a shot of Dorsey in drag. It was funny to watch her gush over Dorsey’s dress, never imagining that Dorsey was working out gender issues.

Mr. L’effete, however, was not gay–he was married with a couple of small kids. I really didn’t care if he was gay or not; all I cared about was getting a good grade in his class. He assigned plays by Shakespeare including Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet; sections of the Odyssey; and poems by romantic poets like Keats, Coleridge, Byron and Shelley. His lectures weren’t as deep as Miss Johnson’s philosophical talks. When he read poems aloud, he had a snippy, biting air of authoritarianism. He was also a true believer in the value of memorization. He would assign long sections of Shakespeare’s plays (To-morrow and to-morrow and to-morrow/creeps in this petty pace from day to day) and entire poems, (Thomas Gray’s Elegy in a Country Churchyard) for us to memorize. I despised memorizing those poems, not because it was difficult but because I didn’t understand the point. I wasn’t alone in my distaste for memorizing passages of Shakespeare. Most of the class was failing Mr. L’effete’s class because of his requirement to memorize long passages and recite them in class. Those students who were failing fueled even more rumors and ugly jokes. They were hell-bent on taking Mr. L’effete down.

Mr. L’effete finally gave a speech to our class concerning the rumors.  He said he was hurt that anyone would start such rumors and make cruel jokes. He said that he was not a homosexual, that he was happily married, had children and he demanded those who were guilty of starting rumors to knock it off.  I thought he was going to cry at one point, which didn’t help his case. After the speech, the jocks and rednecks kept up their campaign to ridicule Mr. L’effete behind his back. Finally, by year’s end, Mr. L’effete resigned from his job as teacher at our school.

Over the summer after taking Mr. L’effete’s class, I realized why he made us memorize those passages. I was lying awake in bed one night, thinking about how it felt to be invisible. It felt like no one ever noticed me–at home or at school. I didn’t stand out as particularly talented or beautiful or smart. I was plain and ordinary. Was that the reason I never had a boyfriend? Who would ask me out when I receded into the dull, green cinderblock walls of the school’s cafeteria? Then a passage that I memorized in Mr. L’effete’s class popped into my head: “Full many a gem of purest ray serene/The dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear./Full many a flower is born to blush unseen/And waste its sweetness on the desert air.”

Yes! That’s what I’m feeling! When I memorized those lines by Thomas Gray, I didn’t understand them. But the lines dug deeper into my psyche over the summer and marinated until their meaning shined in my mind just when I needed it. I realized then why poetry was important. The images in poems point us to a deeper understanding of our lives.

Without Mr. L’effete’s insistence on memorizing passages, I wouldn’t have been able to retrieve one thirty years later, lying awake in bed once again, trying to make sense of what happened in my life. A passage he assigned arose in my mind at a dark hour, just when I needed it:

Come, gentle night, come, loving, black-brow’d night,
Give me my Romeo; and, when he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night.

Thanks to Mr. L’effete, I will always be in love with night.


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