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Slackjaw by Jim Knipfel
What Winslow Homer Taught Me
No two ways about it, Mrs. Jenkins was a bit of a bitch. Even if she wasn't a bitch to the core, she certainly seemed to have something against me, and I don't say things like that very often.
Mrs. Jenkins taught fourth grade at Webster Elementary. She bore, thinking back on it, an undeniable resemblance to Margaret Hamilton, but a Margaret Hamilton with large, tinted glasses and hair kept in tight, charcoal-gray curls. Her skin was leathery, tanned, and deeply lined, and she had a tendency to wear pantsuits, which was still a fairly radical fashion statement in early '70s Wisconsin. At least among grade school teachers it was.
My central memory of fourth grade concerns another one of my schoolyard fights and its aftermath.
It was winter. It always seemed to be winter when I was in grade school. I was out on the playground, minding my own business, waiting for the bell to ring when my friend Mike came running past me. This was odd, as Mike rarely ran. But then I was saw why he was running-a chubby-faced kid was in hot pursuit. I knew the chubby faced kid, didn't like him, and knew that if he was chasing Mike, it wasn't just in fun. So instinctively-I don't know how or why-I stuck out my fist, and the chubby faced kid ran full-bore into it face-first.
It was a lucky and unintentional punch, and it occurred so quickly that I wasn't really aware of what happened. Even after the kid began squealing and ran toward the school holding his mouth. I continued wandering around for a few oblivious minutes, not thinking about it at all until another friend-Charlie was his name-tapped me on the shoulder. He was wearing the orange sash of a playground monitor--those volunteer, kiss-ass snitches--and informed me that he had to take me to the principal's office, because the kid was crying and bleeding. In what would be my first-ever perp walk, he took me by the arm and led me through the crowd of staring children toward the double doors.
Much ugliness ensued.
The following day, Mrs. Jenkins had a new activity she wanted us to try out. I think it was supposed to build our self-esteem. The idea was fairly simple: she would work her way around the class, student by student. And for each student, the rest of the class was supposed to compile a list of his or her good qualities. So for each student, people would offer things like, "She's smart" or "He's a good kickball player" or "She's nice." The idea was to compile a list of as many positive attributes as possible for each student-even the mean and stupid ones.
When she reached me, however, she paused, then jumped straight on ahead to the next kid without compiling any sort of list for me. When I raised my hand to call attention to this gross omission, she said something along the lines of "There's nothing nice about you," then went on with the others.
Yeah, something like that'll give a kid a complex.
Mrs. Jenkins did do one thing for which I'm eternally grateful, and if she ever became aware of it, she'd probably kick herself.
As part of our language arts training, she passed around a picture and asked us to write a story about it. This is a commonplace practice, I realize. Everybody's gone through something like that. But what made this different was the picture she used.
We were never told what the name of the picture was, but I remember it clearly enough that I was able to track it down again one recent morning. Only then did I discover that it was The Gulf Stream by Winslow Homer.
Homer's 1899 painting depicts a shirtless black man adrift alone in a small dinghy in the midst of a typhoon. The waves are high, dark and menacing, the clouds are boiling above him, there's a waterspout in the distance, and the boat is being circled by sharks. To make things worse, one of the man's legs is chained to the boat. For some reason, the guy in the painting seems pretty calm about all this.
In short, she didn't present us with a picture of a happy family eating dinner or a farmer milking a cow. The painting was not only complex--it was grim and hopeless as well.
Once we'd all gotten a good look, we opened our slim blue notebooks and began scribbling. If I remember correctly (and I may be romanticizing somewhat here), my first line was, "They had set him adrift two days earlier." After that, I couldn't stop. The words (in my large and clunky handwriting) rolled on for pages. It was the first time I'd ever experienced the sheer and simple joy of making crap up and writing it down as I did so.
When she told us to turn them in an hour later, I was still at it. Most of the others had stopped much earlier. But I wrapped things up and turned it in with the rest. In the end, I'd written a story about a slave who's been cast adrift by a cruel sea captain for unknown reasons. He had to contend with hunger, thirst, and those pesky sharks as he awaited the eye of the storm. For some reason, the eye of the storm would be his salvation. I certainly didn't use the word "salvation," and I wasn't really sure what the "eye of the storm" was at the time, but I'd heard references to it on the weather. I was under the impression it was a calm spot, so I threw it in anyway, thinking I'd take my chances.
In the final sentences, the boat capsizes, the man drowns, and his carcass is devoured by sharks.
I had no idea that Mrs. Jenkins planned to read them all aloud right then and there, but however mortified I was at the thought of her reading mine aloud (I still can't deal with things like that), I was happy to hear the others, if only for schadenfreude's sake.
Most of them were about a man taking a boat ride or a man who was fishing, and few of them stretched longer than four sentences, all of which began with "The man " ("The man is in a boat. The man is fishing. The man ")
When she reached mine, she whipped through it in a monotone, her voice only slowing when she hit the final sentences. When she was finished, she slapped it down with all the others and said, "Jim Knipfel, that was just awful." I wasn't sure how to take that. Was it the spelling? The punctuation? The handwriting? Then she went on. "That's not a happy ending at all. It's terrible."
Well, what the hell'd you expect? Look at the goddamn painting, you silly cow! What, he's gonna end up on a tropical island with all his friends, and they're all gonna have a big birthday party?
I of course wasn't thinking in exactly those terms in the fourth grade, but still, her reaction left me feeling somehow vindicated. I knew I'd done something right, even as I confirmed her suspicions that there was nothing nice about me.
And for that, I have to give credit where credit is due. Even if it was hardly her intention, that ol' witch Mrs. Jenkins let me know that maybe I could write okay stories sometimes. Even if I wouldn't even consider doing such a thing again for another fifteen years or so, I knew it was something I could probably do.
I sometimes wonder if I would've thought the same thing if she'd liked the story.