She was a black woman and for the first three years at the prep school, she was invisible. She was around. She went to all the school functions and even ate with some students at lunch but she was an overweight, gray-haired black woman and that makes you invisible until Martin Luther King Day or Black History Month that the school enforced cultural exposure too and then she became visible. I vaguely wondered what her life was like. I didn’t see a ring on her finger. The other teachers, mostly white and Asian, didn’t really speak to her. Mrs. Lime kept to herself. She taught English literature.
My last year of school, the year I was applying to all the Ivy League Colleges, I signed up for her Shakespeare class. I figured it would be easy. What did a black woman know about Shakespeare? My first essay I wrote in two hours and was pleased with it. When I got it back graded I had a C and the pages were full of red marks. A bad grade from Mrs. Lime could block me from the Ivy League schools. I complained to my father, a donor to the school, and he spoke to the principal. I was given a second chance to write the paper. I read a little more. Wrote more intensely. I focused on a monologue in King Lear:
This admiration, sir, is much o’ th’ savour
Of other your new pranks. I do beseech you
To understand my purposes aright.
As you are old and reverend, you should be wise.
Here do you keep a hundred knights and squires;
Men so disorder’d, so debosh’d, and bold
That this our court, infected with their manners,
Shows like a riotous inn. Epicurism and lust
Make it more like a tavern or a brothel
Than a grac’d palace. The shame itself doth speak
For instant remedy.
I got the paper back and this time I got a B. I cried. I went to my father again.
“You have to help me Dad. I need an A in this class.”
“Maybe you should talk to Mrs. Lime about how to improve.”
And so I did. After class the next day.
“Why did you give me a B?”
“Why did you do B work?”
I felt anger flush my cheeks. “What do you know about Shakespeare anyway? You’re…”
“I’m what?” Her voice could cut steel.
“Black? You have powerful observational skills but skin color is not a barrier to art. Read the monologue closely. You are full of bad manners and lust. That is not how to live. You, young people, spend hours on Tinder and Facebook and little time actually absorbing the world, reading literature, or caring for your future. I assume your parents have already fixed your future. You live in a riotous inn and not a graced palace. You student’s troll each other. Mock. None of you have the fortitude for deep work or deep thought. Try cultivating your voice. A social one. Make sure it mirrors your internal voice. Make your life consistent. You did B work and you won’t get another chance. Good day, Ms. Wisham.”
I ran out of the classroom in a fit of anger. How dare she criticize or anyone at this prep school. I told the principal.
“Well, you can’t change classes. You’re already locked in for the year. I’m afraid you will have to increase your dedication to the class.”
I went home. “Dad, can you make a donation to Yale or Harvard? I think Mrs. Lime is about to tank my chances of getting in.”
“Whatever you want sweetie.”
I made it through the year. B+. I got into Princeton and my dad didn’t even need to make a donation. It wasn’t until I was thirty and floundering that I remembered Mrs. Lime again. I lacked fortitude. I was a mess. No career. My dad was still paying my rent in Manhattan. I have to admit, after Mrs. Lime, I avoided all professors of color. But maybe they had something good to share. Something helpful. Something…real.
I went to my prep school website and discovered Mrs. Lime was still there. I emailed her.
“Can we talk?” I sat back and waited for a response as I drank French wine paid for by my dad.