women. writers.

Creative Nonfiction: "Vicki" by Pam Munter

She was in her first year of teaching English and Social Studies at Emerson Junior
High in West Los Angeles. It was 1954; I was 11 and feeling lost in my new
surroundings. The school resembled an institution, dark, crowded and filled with the
noise of kids yelling at each other. I felt anxiety nearly every day and even stopped eating
breakfast due to an iffy stomach. The school seemed at least twice the size of my
elementary school and I had to take a crowded bus for a half hour each way. The bus
stopped at the corner of my street each morning at 7:20, taking us down the landscaped
and winding Sunset Boulevard, past million dollar homes before dumping us in the
apartment-littered landscape of West Los Angeles where Emerson was located.
It was my first experience moving from class to class seven times over the course
of the day and I lived in daily fear I would forget where to go. I had the whole schedule
written on the front of my notebook. Miss Cottle’s classes were my first of the day after
homeroom and I found them and her somehow reassuring. With her short stature and
youthful appearance, she didn’t seem all that much older than I was. She wore her light
brown hair short, didn’t seemed to wear much makeup and dressed in tailored clothing. I
also wore my hair short, hadn’t yet discovered makeup and dressed very simply. She
didn’t smile a lot but there was something about her that told me she cared about the
students. I didn’t get that feeling from many of the other teachers I had that year. At the
time, I had no idea this was her first year in a classroom and that she was probably as
anxious as I was.

     Some time early in the semester, I had been chasing my brother around the
kitchen table, caught my little toe on the corner and fractured it in two pieces. Miss Cottle
advised me to stay in during the nutrition break between her classes, to spare the risk of
someone stomping on it, which often happened on the bus between home and school. It
was during those breaks, just the two of us in her classroom, that we bonded, really over
chit-chat.

     “Did you see ‘Perry Mason’ last night?” she asked.

     “Yeah. I knew right off who did it.”

     “Me, too. But it’s like the Sherlock Holmes book I’ve assigned, isn’t it? It’s the
thrill of the chase and the uncovering of the villain that keeps you interested.”

     This kind of conversation drew me in very quickly. She talked to me as she would
an adult. She had a wiry build with a head like a triangle, making her eyes appear large
and penetrating. She used this to her advantage in controlling students. Her interventions
in class were always just a little barbed. If no one volunteered an answer to her question
quickly enough, she would ask, “Did anyone turn off the TV and read the assignment last
night?” Or if someone looked like he wasn’t paying attention, she might say, “Are we
disturbing your nap, Mr. Johnston?”

     During my first year at Emerson, a new school had been built, closer to home. It
still required a bus ride but it wasn’t as long. I looked forward to going to Paul Revere
Junior High. It had to be better than the oppressive and dark Emerson halls. The many
buildings were all one story, each identified by a letter of the alphabet. Though spread out
over a wide area, all the classrooms were easy to find and were clean and bright. The
buildings were connected by breezeways and the lockers were outside, instead of being
located on the second floor of a distant decrepit building. I had signed up to take Drama
One as one of my eighth grade electives, finally tip-toeing into an area I had found too
daunting before. When I walked into the classroom that first day, there was Miss Cottle.
Only now she was the married Mrs. Nagel. Better still, she had married an actor! I could
feel myself getting excited about the possibilities. It was good to see her again.

     As a 13-year-old, I was terrified of embarrassing myself in any way, great or
small. While I sensed an unspecified kinship in Mrs. Nagel, I knew her to be caustic if
not downright sarcastic in class. She had the power to bring down my world with a
glance, a comment or even a written criticism. On one paper, I had inserted several
unfilled pages in the back of a report to make it look longer. Her comment scrawled
diagonally on one of the pages came back: “Blank pages won’t help your grade, my little
friend.”

     Over the course of the school year, I made it through the usual theater exercises,
from pantomimes to improvisations. During an assigned pantomime on stage, I was
supposed to be a burglar, sneaking into a house. She didn’t think I was concentrating hard
enough, so she picked up an empty metal pitcher from her desk and threw it across the
entire classroom onto the stage behind me. The reverberation caused the students to gasp
but I didn’t flinch. That wasn’t good. If I had been truly in the scene, the noise should
have startled me. But even by then, there was very little that threw me off emotionally.
In an improvisation that same semester, Mrs. Nagel whispered to each of us on
stage a secret that we had to communicate to the other actor. My scene partner told me
she was dying of cancer. I was supposed to react to that, as part of the dramatic exercise
and play the scene. I went over and sat down next to her, asking her questions about how
she was feeling. Later, when one student in class critiqued me because I didn’t cry, Mrs.
Nagel stood up for me. 

     “I know Pam well enough to know that what you saw was her natural reaction," she said. "Nothing phony about it at all.”

     I went on to Drama Two the following year. In spite of my nervousness, I loved
being on stage, risking myself that way. The adrenalin rush was almost intoxicating but I
was crushed if I made a mistake or forgot a line. And while Mrs. Nagel often provided a
painful critique, I trusted she knew what she was doing. I was hooked, both on theater
and on Mrs. Nagel. I didn’t realize it at the time, but she gave me the gift of a passion that
would last me my whole life.

     One morning I caught a glimpse of her arriving in her car when the bus dropped
us off. I memorized her license plate number – JNY362 - and started leaving little gifts
and cards in her car from time to time. This was long before dress codes were abandoned
and teachers and students casually hugged each other, mind you. The boundaries between
teacher and student were formal and very tightly drawn. I was willing to risk it a bit to get
closer to this powerful person. I figured if I had stepped over a line, she would have been
quick to tell me so. She was not at all shy about telling people what she thought. When
she thanked me or commented on one of my “gifts,” I felt as if I had pleased her in some
small way.

     She had something I wanted, though I wasn’t sure what it was at the time. Perhaps
it was her iconoclastic flair and proficiency with words. On one occasion, she was
lecturing about one of Shakespeare’s plays. She caught me rolling my eyes. 

     “I know you’d rather be starring in an MGM musical, Pam, but you really need to learn about all
forms of drama, especially Shakespeare.” 

     Before long, she had assigned me a scene from Twelfth Night, much to my dismay. I slogged through it, but developed an aversion to The Bard that remains today.

     Most of the adults in my life had been out of a Sinclair Lewis novel, conforming
and stereotypical. Mediocrity was not as feared as violating consensual social rules.
Material success was what counted, not intellectual stimulation or educational
achievement. Male and female roles seemed assigned by some invisible force, violated at
your own peril. I had nightmares about dressing inappropriately for school. This was the
mid-1950s, after all, and women who broke the rules or spoke their minds were rare.
Vicki was intense and direct and I wanted some of that. I liked her confrontational style,
though it often terrified me.

     By the time I graduated from the ninth grade, I had appeared in small parts in
several bland and forgettable school productions and was the regular announcer for the
morning news on the school’s PA system, often impersonating the powerful Hollywood
columnist, Louella Parsons. I loved speaking in her nasal, sing-song voice to give life to
the boring school announcements. In fact, I had become a habitual impersonator of many
of my teachers, but never Mrs. Nagel. I wanted to emulate her but I could not
impersonate her. It would have felt disloyal.

     I was sad to leave junior high. Those last two years at Revere were to be the best
years of my school career, thanks to a large extent to Mrs. Nagel. I had a genuine ally, an
adult I trusted, a new experience for me. Over the course of the final year, I had turned in
movie and TV reviews and a lengthy history of motion pictures, “From Meg to Mic.” She
gave me an A on all of them, making constructive and encouraging comments on each
one. Part of me was still afraid of her, giving an adrenalin-fueled hyper-reality to our
relationship. Yet, under her influence, I blossomed like a cultivated flower. I made the
honor roll and habitually began taking riskier steps outside my prescribed world. I started
to think about writing reviews, perhaps in high school or college – or even for a living.
For perhaps the only time in all my academic years, I felt like I belonged there. I had
been a chubby, four-eyed nerdy iconoclast in those early adolescent years. At a time
when girls weren’t supposed to be smart, I was something of an outcast. And I was past
the age where I could get away with being my habitual athletic self. Girls were marshaled
into the prescribed housewifey feminine model by adolescence. None of this seemed to
matter to Mrs. Nagel, though. It wasn’t anything she said or did, but someone I respected,
respected me back.

     I don’t remember how it happened, but we reconnected when I was in high
school. By this time, I was the managing editor of the school paper, writing movie
reviews every week. The glasses had been replaced by contact lenses, though I still
struggled with weight. I had opted out of school dramatics (no time in my schedule) and,
with a friend, had written and was starring in a musical comedy revue off campus, to
which I had invited the Nagels. Once Vicki was back in my life, my parents invited Don
and Vicki over to our house for dinner. Kids didn’t invite teachers – even ex-teachers -
home then, so this was a major event in my young life.

     Shortly after they arrived, dressed for dinner, I timidly invited her into my
bedroom, my sanctuary. It was like allowing her entrance into my private, inner world.
Two walls in my room were lined with books and record albums. A few years before, I
had started a subscription to the Fireside Theatre book club in which I received a new
play every month. The record shelves were lined with popular music LPs – Doris Day,
Eydie Gorme, Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra along with Broadway and Hollywood
musicals and a smattering of classical albums. I had designed a lazy Susan bookcase that
dominated one corner of the room, floor-to- ceiling. There was a TV on a small stand near
one wall. My bed was a white naugahyde couch I made up each night. I thought it looked
more sophisticated than just a conventional bed and overlooked the discomfort. When I
shepherded her into my bedroom with all the autographed movie star photos on the walls
and the plays in the bookcase, I think she was surprised. We sat down on my couch and
talked for a while.

     She looked at the titles. “All those plays. Have you read them all?”

     “Yes, I have. I prefer the musicals and the comedies but I try to read whatever the
book club offers that month.”

     “Do you have a favorite?”

     “I’ve been reading William Inge and Arthur Miller. I’d sure like to see them
performed. I’ve seen the movies but it must be more vital on the stage.”

     I don’t remember how it started, but quickly I found myself trusting her with my
observations about classmates, about school and about my future. She was invariably
supportive, yet challenging as she had always been with me. My high school ambition
was to become Darryl F. Zanuck, the head of a major motion picture studio, since I was
too timid to admit my real performing fantasies, even to her. When I told her I didn’t plan
to go to college, she confronted me.

     “I just want to go out and get a job at a studio,” I declared.

     “You can always do that,” she countered. “But college will give you things you
don’t know you need yet.”

     I hated school by then, defending my position by telling her that none of the
powerful movie moguls had gone to college. Most had not even made it through high
school. Our dialogues were spirited and straightforward.

     Once, I asked her, “What do you think I will do with my life?” 

     She paused.

     “What do you want to do?” I didn’t know, but I knew it had to be about show
business somehow. So her first answer surprised me. “I think you’d be a good social critic. Your powers of observation are very good for someone your age.”

     Social critic? What was that? I knew I was developing the same kind of acerbic
style I had heard coming from her, but I didn’t know I could make a career out of being
an articulate curmudgeon.

     “Or,” she continued, “you could write for Daily Variety. Your reviews seem to
have taken on that style.”

     I hadn’t told her that I had already started subscribing to that trade paper a year or
two earlier, a reading habit I continued for nearly fifty years when it stopped publication.
“You’d also make a darned good teacher.”

     I bristled and quickly countered, “I would never do that.” At that point, I just
wanted to finish school and get as far away from it as possible. And the thought of being
stuck with students like me would make me want to run from the room. Ironically, I did
teach several different academic subjects at the university level – but not theater.

     During one of the Sundays around the pool, she mentioned that she would be
starring in a student TV production of Witness to Murder, which had been a recent film
starring Barbara Stanwyck. It’s a one-woman drama in which a bedridden woman
overhears her own murder being planned through an accidentally overheard phone call. I
had seen the movie and begged my parents to take me so I could see her do it. I had
hoped to actually be on set, but instead I sat with my mother in a dark room at UCLA,
watching Vicki on a television screen as she played the demanding, suspenseful role in
this thriller. I had never seen her perform and I was totally agog. When we met briefly
afterward, I gushed like a real fan. I knew then that she was as talented an actor as she
was a teacher and wondered why she hadn’t pursued it professionally.

     Over the next few years, the Nagels were frequent guests. On many occasions,
Vicki would call and indirectly wangle an invitation for that day. We had a pool and they
came to swim and join us in a barbeque. At first, my parents found it strange there were
never any invitations coming the other way. I thought perhaps they didn’t have the
money to entertain. As an actor, Don wasn’t often employed and took other part-time
jobs. But I had no complaints. I enjoyed what had become our private talks in my room.
It was like therapy for me. Here was an adult in whom I could confide and who
understood my passion for show business.

     But I was well aware of the uncomfortably one-sided situation about which my
parents complained more frequently. They had joked with me about how self-absorbed
Don was and complained about being stuck with those conversations with him while
Vicki and I talked in my room. They didn’t understand why Don didn’t have a “real” job
and thought he was living off his wife, a scathing indictment for the times. As time went
on, the resentment seemed to escalate. My mother referred to them as “deadbeats” and
“freeloaders” and laughed about them behind their backs. I began to see their point. Soon,
they stopped issuing the invitations and the relationship faded. When Vicki called and
asked what we were doing, I had to lie and say we were going out. After a few of those
calls, she got the picture and stopped calling. I felt terrible being in the middle but I had
to let it go. I would end every deceptive phone call with my heart racing and an
indeterminate sense of loss.

     We met from time to time over the following decades, often at one of the plays
she was directing for a local community college. She had invited me to see her
production of “Born Yesterday” done in the round. Though she had directed it, she sat on
the other side of the stage in the audience, opposite me. Afterwards, she told me, “I only
had to watch your face to see how the production was going. It was like getting a
review.”

     Now an adult, I became more aware of her occasionally tense relationships with
others as well as her narrow-mindedness on social and political issues. She and Don had
sometimes made bigoted references about minorities, nonconformists and gay people.

     There was one dinner on our backyard patio in which we were discussing who might be
gay in Hollywood. At the mention of each candidate, Don or Vicki would hold out their
hand limply and lisp the name. “Oh, he’th tho thweet, ithn’t he?” It was clear gay was not
a good thing to be. I sat there, taking it all in, enjoying being “in” on what others did not
know but also not understanding the reasons for my squirming..

     At one point, Vicki proudly announced she was a Republican and had supported a
statewide political initiative that required a loyalty oath for all teachers. She was adamant
in her opposition to any federal government “interference” in education. These comments
didn’t matter to me when I was in junior high and, in fact, echoed my parents’ political
and social biases as well. It was one of the few topics upon which all four of them
seemed to agree. But by the time I hit late adolescence and my early 20s, I had become a
politically-aware liberal Democrat and an articulate feminist and was appalled and
disappointed by her attitudes. I never confronted her but I found myself retreating in
discomfort and disappointment.

     In those later years, she seemed more closed off and defensive than I had
remembered. We had one baffling encounter following an expensive dinner in which her
husband picked up the check. We had not seen one another in at least ten years, the last
time being at my wedding. At the beginning of the evening, I thought I had picked up
some tension from her and surmised she and Don had exchanged harsh words before their
arrival. When the elevator door opened and they stepped out, I was stunned. Vicki had
not aged well. Her hair was white and very short, almost sheared, and she looked gaunt
and tense. That she was shorter than I was took me by surprise. In my youth, she had
seemed outsized and formidable. I was disappointed to receive a less-than-warm greeting
from her as I gave her a big hug. I wasn’t all that surprised when she opted not to sit next
to me at the restaurant, still not understanding what was going on. I had brought my son
and he and Vicki seemed to hit it off. I loved it that she got to know and enjoy him, a
continuation of our historical connection; however, a week or so later, she wrote me a terse letter 
with an angry, almost irrational tone, suggesting I should have taken care of the bill, “after all your feminist talk.” Confused, I sent her a check for what I thought might have covered our part,
apologizing for any misunderstanding. It came back in little pieces, with more insulting
comments. She declared I should put the check “where the sun don’t shine.” It seemed
that something was happening in her life. It didn’t feel as if it had anything to do with me
at all but I felt immobilized by her words. After that startling event, I stopped all contact
for more than 25 years.

     Decades later, as I approached my senior years, I reflected on the people who had
influenced me to be the person I became. She was most certainly close to the top of the
list. It amused me when I realized I had adopted her cynicism, sarcasm and world-
weariness in my own life. It seemed to fit me like a glove. Most of all, though, she was
there when I needed her to be with those talks in my room, her willingness to befriend
and nurture me. In some ways, she was a provocateur, always cajoling me to do better, to
go for what I wanted, to hone my skills, fulfill my fantasies. These were things I would
remember all my life. She encouraged me as a performer and as a writer, the only person
in my world to support and appreciate my investment in both of those pursuits. It
happened that I was still actively engaging in both those activities, which I thought would
please her. I wrote and thanked her for who she had been for me and she wrote back
immediately, expressing surprise, gratified to get the note.

     There were a few more letters over the next two years. By then, I was singing and
performing in several bands. She asked me to send her a schedule, saying that she would
try to drive the two hours to see me perform. I was afraid of her judgment at a vulnerable
time in my life and never followed through.

     Then I received a card announcing her death, sent by a former student, “her”
Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday. Don had died a few years before that and there was
apparently no family except this ex student who saw Vicki as her surrogate mom and had
become her family. In the little memorial booklet was a picture of her smiling. Funny, but
when I thought of her in my mind, she was never smiling. It almost didn’t look like her. I
wondered what I had missed.

     I emailed the surrogate daughter, asking what had happened to Vicki. What came
back, though, was a possible explanation for what had transpired that evening in the
restaurant so many years ago. Around that time, Don had been diagnosed with a fatal
disease, which would cause him to waste away over the next few years. I thought it was
possible they could have recently gotten the news and didn’t want to share it with us. It
couldn’t help but color her experience there and everywhere else. I felt a sense of relief at
this likelihood but I’m not sure what more could have been done at the time.
I went to the internet and Googled her. Buried deep in the entries was an article
she had written in tribute to the public library just a few years before her death. Born in
the early years of the Great Depression, she described a childhood of intermittent
homelessness, driving around in an old car with her mother and whatever man was in her
mother’s life, looking for work and a place to sleep. When they found it, they would send
Vicki to the public library to get rid of her when she wasn’t in school. She had developed
few social skills driving around in a car and didn’t read well, either. At the library, she
was treated as a real person for the first time and given responsibilities. It changed her
life.

     I was stunned by the article. I had no idea. She never shared her early life with
me. This was a person I wanted to know better, to hear how she had extricated herself
from this life of poverty and despair. How had she created such a dynamic person out of
the rubble? Of course, it was too late. No wonder she wanted to spend time with my
stable middle-class family. And I understood now why she spent all those hours with me
in my room. She must have seen some of herself in this intense, driven, nonconforming
kid who didn’t fit in, either. She wanted to pass it on. And so she did. One of the best
things I ever did was to thank her for that.

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