A LETTER TO MISS GOODBODDY
The bell rang for the start of the evening session. I reached for the register and looked round the classroom at my clutch of students, most of them newcomers and all looking out of place and awkward in the school desks. A motley collection, very like last year and the year before that. Ah well, only twelve weeks to the end of term.
My eye caught the familiar figure of Miss Goodboddy and my heart sank. She was seated in her usual place, front row, left hand side. I don‘t hear too well on that side, and you would think that in four years Miss Goodboddy would have discovered that fact. But what Miss Goodboddy didn‘t want to see Miss Goodboddy didn‘t see. Moreover, it wasn‘t easy to deal with a student who could be so absent in mind while so present in body.
No future in idle wishing, I thought. Better get started.
‘Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to our Creative Writing course at the start of another year.‘
They all sat up and tried, with varying degrees of success, to look like writers. As I mouthed the well-worn platitudes – I‘d done this spiel so often that I could almost slip my brain into neutral and let my tongue freewheel – I studied my disciples more closely.
A new young man occupied a seat on the back row. Every student in an evening centre – with the exception of Miss Goodboddy – craves a seat on the back row, and has to be cajoled into filling up the aching void between the tutor and the first row of occupied seats. But not Miss Goodboddy. If Miss Goodboddy could have sat in my lap that is undoubtedly where Miss Goodboddy would have sat.
The new young man returned my smile of welcome with something approaching a scowl, which turned to a look of near-fury when he began to blush. What‘s the betting he writes poetry ? I thought. Poems with no rhyme, no recognizable metre, lines of uneven length, and reflecting a view of the universe so desolate and embittered you‘d swear he wrote them with thumbscrews on.
In the other corner sat a woman of some forty summers, in a neat dark dress. She looked unmarried, and probably was, and my guess was that any love scenes she wrote would prove to be unexpectedly torrid, heavy with adjectives, and only just this side of explicit detail. She returned my smile with a touch of embarrassment and cast down her eyes.
A girl of twenty-odd years looked – interesting. An older man in a dark suit had the hands of an artisan. The two or three obvious pensioners had probably joined after having run the gamut of all the other courses, and there were about as many middle-aged housewives. As usual, the distaff side was more in evidence than the male.
Registration out of the way and introductions completed, it was time for an early coffee break. I‘ve never been good at forecasting which students would team up with which, so I was amused, but not altogether astonished, to see at one table in the canteen the earnest young poet, the forty-year-old spinster and Miss Goodboddy.
Over the first cup of coffee Miss Goodboddy was evidently explaining some knotty point of writing technique with all the aplomb of abysmal ignorance, her enthusiasm for the craft being exceeded only by her total lack of talent. She would cover page after page of cheap exercise books with all but indecipherable scrawl, not one word of which had ever excited my sense of wonder – except to wonder gloomily why she kept on trying.
She got up now to fetch more coffee, the young man, intent upon his own confusion and embarrassment in the company of ladies, having failed to offer his services. As she reached the far end of the canteen I seized the opportunity of a word to both of them in her absence.
‘If you wouldn‘t mind a friendly word of warning, it might be wise not to take technical advice from other students, you know. In my experience you‘ll make enough mistakes of your own without making other people‘s as well." Then I saw Miss Goodboddy hurrying back, and made myself scarce.
In the second half of the session, as though to give point to my advice, she excelled herself. I had spent a full hour explaining, with all the pedagogical skill in my power, the importance of involving the reader and helping him to identify with the characters, and so on. I flattered myself that I had done a workmanlike job and asked for questions.
Miss Goodboddy quickly extinguished the glow.
‘That was most interesting,‘ she said, in her accustomed tone, which seemed to imply that my teaching was only a little less profound and inspiring than the Sermon on the Mount. ‘Could you tell me, please, whether it‘s always necessary to include a stamped addressed envelope with a manuscript ?‘
I said hurriedly that I would be covering the whole subject of submissions in a later session, knowing in my heart that when I did she would be the first to ask a question, and that it would be totally irrelevant to the subject, as her questions invariably were.
Something would have to be done about Miss Goodboddy . . .
I put the problem to the Head of Centre.
‘Oh dear, oh dear,‘ he said. ‘It‘s Miss Goodboddy, is it ? There‘s one in every class, isn‘t there ? But I‘m sure you appreciate my position. If we refuse people admission, or ask them to leave, they tend to run to the Education Offices seeking redress. And I don‘t know why it is, but it always seems to get to the Chief Education Officer, and he always seems to take their part. It‘s the price of democracy, I suppose, ha, ha !‘
For weeks I racked my brain trying to devise some scheme for ridding myself of Miss Goodboddy which would not drive her to seek immediate redress. Nothing seemed to work, and the more I tried the more her inane prattle, her banal comments and her wildly irrelevant questions seemed to grow. Even when I tried the direct frontal assault, pointing out that I felt it unlikely that she would ever be a writer, she merely took it as a veiled suggestion that she should try harder. And trying harder in Miss Goodboddy‘s book meant making ever more comments and asking ever more questions. I began to think that I should carry the incubus of Miss Goodboddy with me to the grave.
To make matters worse, she gave me no justifiable grounds for complaint. I couldn‘t pretend that she wasn‘t trying, at least in one sense of the word, or that she ever acted in a manner contrary to my wishes – or that she was ever anything but sickeningly regular in her attendances.
Then, one Tuesday evening, she showed her Achilles heel. I had been telling the class that they were overlooking the fact that the writer‘s best material is right under his nose. And I suggested that for their next assignment they should each make a dossier of his or her own life, family, work, friends, and so on, and I added that we could then make use of this superb material in their later work.
They all did it. All but Miss Goodboddy. For once, it seemed, Miss Goodboddy, the arch-conformist, had failed to conform, and in so doing had provided me with the weapon I needed. The next Tuesday I broached the matter.
‘Miss Goodboddy, I notice that you haven‘t completed last week‘s assignment !‘
She coloured, and looked more than a little confused. Most women look more attractive in such circumstances, but not Miss Goodboddy.
‘I‘m very sorry, but I – I couldn‘t do it !‘
‘Couldn‘t do it, Miss Goodboddy ?‘
She seemed about to burst into tears.
‘No, no, really I couldn‘t ! I‘ll do any other assignment, I promise, but I just couldn‘t do that !‘
For the life of me I could think of no reason that Miss Goodboddy, the compulsive scribbler, could legitimately advance for not completing such an assignment. But I had to be sure of my ground before pressing home my advantage.
‘If it was a question of illness, Miss Goodboddy – ‘
She rushed to deny it.
‘Oh no, no ! I‘ve always attended without fail ! I haven‘t missed a single class in four years !‘
Indeed, you haven‘t, I thought. Would to Heaven you‘d missed a score. But here at last was a chance too good to miss, and I lied in my teeth.
‘Miss Goodboddy, I assume you know that it‘s a condition of entry to the class that the student must not only attend regularly but must also complete the set assignments ? You do appreciate that ?‘
‘Oh, I do ! Indeed I do ! And I wouldn‘t want you to think I won‘t do this one. I – I just can‘t !‘
It was now or never.
‘Miss Goodboddy, I really can‘t accept that, you know. I‘m afraid I must insist. That particular assignment was a most important part of the course. We shall be making a great deal of use of the material in later work, you see.‘
This time I really did think she would burst into tears. But, remembering the words of the Head of Centre, I must tread carefully. I must not only be just, but be seen to have been just.
‘Please bring the assignment to next Tuesday‘s class, Miss Goodboddy, and we‘ll say no more about it !‘
She seemed about to protest, appeared to think better of it, and fled.
Miss Goodboddy missed the next week‘s class, for the first time in four years. For no evident reason, the lesson seemed to crawl, and I thought I detected the first dread signs of a lack of interest among the students. Perhaps they‘re missing Miss Goodboddy, I said to myself, and smiled inwardly.
But the Head of Centre‘s words as I handed in the register at the end of class wiped the smile off.
‘I‘ve noticed that your numbers have been – hovering on the brink. So far you‘ve managed to maintain the minimum number of students, but tonight you‘re down to ten, I see. Any particular reason ?‘
I said I knew of one student who was down with ‘flu, and who had sent apologies, but I couldn‘t account for the other.
‘Oh ? A new student ?‘
‘Well, er, no. Actually it‘s – it‘s Miss Goodboddy. You remember, I mentioned her to you.‘
‘Oh yes, of course ! She‘s a regular, isn‘t she ?‘
Never missed, I replied, and his look spoke his opinion of teachers who couldn‘t hang on to the regulars, never mind the newcomers. Perhaps I‘d like to make enquiries, he suggested, reminding me that in these straitened times the Office was quick to close classes that fell below the statutory minimum.
The thought of actually making enquiries about Miss Goodboddy‘s absence grated like grit in spinach. But I needed the money. So I asked Miss Spencer, the shy spinster, if she would mind making enquiries. Before she could even agree, the fierce young poet broke in,
‘You won‘t persuade her ! It was that assignment you set. She says she can‘t do it, and she doesn‘t feel she can go on attending if she doesn‘t. You‘ll have to see her yourself, and see whether you can persuade her !‘
His look said, ‘And serve you jolly well right !‘ For some reason, the Miss Goodboddy who had been the thorn in my flesh had become in their eyes the victim of Sir‘s high-handedness. There was no alternative. I must find out why she couldn‘t complete that assignment.
I rang Miss Goodboddy‘s bell, but there was no response. I rang again, and waited a little longer, but still there was no reply. Then, as I was leaving the house, I became aware of voices and laughter, apparently from the garden at the back. I walked down the small side road and peered over the fence.
The merriment was coming from Miss Goodboddy and another person – though ‘person‘ might not be the first word which would come to mind. He was a spastic child, grotesque in his movements, and pitiful in his lack of control (foot note). But, though his small body might be matter for tears, his whole soul was clearly alight with joy. He and Miss Goodboddy were playing some game, apparently familiar, which had him shrieking with pure delight.
I know that at times I‘m not as sensitive as I might be, and that I often barge in where angels would go on tiptoe, but this was one time when I knew I must not intrude.
‘Oh yes,‘ said Miss Spencer, when I asked about the child. ‘Richard did say something about a child, but I don‘t know any more than that !‘
I took it that Richard was the fierce young man. Apparently some kind of relationship had sprung up between him and Miss Goodboddy, though on the face of things they would seem to have had little in common. I readily accepted Miss Spencer‘s offer to make further enquiries.
She was waiting for me on the following Tuesday evening.
‘Mark‘s her nephew. It seems that his parents were killed in a road accident and Margaret - Miss Goodboddy, that is - took over the care of him. He‘s a lovely child, she says, and she should know. But I‘m afraid I couldn‘t persuade her to come back.‘
I thanked her for her efforts and said that I would try myself.
‘I do hope you can persuade her,‘ she said. ‘These evenings obviously mean a lot to her. Tuesday‘s her only free time, you see, The only evening she can get someone to come in and sit with Mark, I mean. She‘s obviously fond of him, but I expect she still needs to escape sometimes.‘
So here I am, trying to write a letter to Miss Goodboddy, the last kind of letter I ever expected to write.
It ought to be easy enough. After all, I am a professional writer.
But somehow I can't find the words . . .
In this story Bill refers to a child suffering from 'cerebral palsy' as being a 'spastic child'. I acknowledge that the term is inappropriate, and assure anyone offended by its use that it was not my intention to cause offence by reproducing this story in its unabridged form.
I take the view that we are all children of our time, and although we may strive to improve ourselves and sing with the angels our feet are stuck in the clay. I shrink from altering the original text in order that it might comply with present notions of what may or may not be appropriate, as it would imply I have an authority to 'improve' the original. Instead I refer the reader back to the narrative context and reflect that this term was penned over thirty years ago.
Whatever judgements one might wish to make about its use now, I wish to point out that it is set within a story of an enlightened response of one human being to the another human being's courage and commitment.