Reading the short bubbly novel “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” by Muriel Spark, I’m reminded of my own most extraordinary high school teacher back in California so many years ago.
In the book, Miss Brodie is a 30-ish instructor of teenage girls in Edinburgh, Scotland, with unorthodox teaching ways that fellow teachers sniff at as “experimental methods.” Weeding out her sharpest pupils from the dolts, Miss Brodie selects six girls to be “the crème de la crème” — the Brodie set.
“Determined to instill in them independence, passion, and ambition, Miss Brodie advises her girls, ‘Safety does not come first. Goodness, Truth, and Beauty come first. Follow me.’”
Miss Brodie goes on: “Art and religion first; then philosophy; lastly science. That is the order of the great subjects of life, that’s their order of importance”
At that, memories tumble forth of how my junior year English teacher, Mrs. Lisa Condon, laser-focused on art, literature, theater, poetry and all things high culture. And how she quietly cherry-picked certain students to be her, for lack of a better word, pets — the Condon set. She knew who would soar amid her unconventional efforts and those who would muddle through a fog of half-assed disinterest.
I went to an unremarkable high school in the flush suburbs of the East Bay near San Francisco, notable for its cloying rah-rah school spirit (Go Wolves!) and outstanding mediocrity, from academics to sports (Go Wolves?). The place sort of asphyxiated your teenage soul.
But there were exceptions in the form of a few teachers — colorful, charismatic, quirky characters who jumpstarted their subjects to phosphoric life. They’d challenge with an uncompromising affection for the material and the students. To name a few, there was Mr. Church, Mr. Weigardt, Mr. Nelson and, above all, the fearsome Mrs. Condon.
Mrs. Condon — always in flowing floral skirts, straight brown hair down her back, peasant blouses, no makeup — was soft but a fierce taskmaster. She could scare the snot-nosed adolescence out of you and make you a college-poised pupil in the first couple weeks of class. Each week we had to write a long essay. They took me five hours, every time. For midterms, we had to memorize the verbatim definitions of 125 vocabulary words.
Mrs. Condon was no martinet. She was warm and human, if tightly wound. She hewed to principle. She knew how things should be done and expected us to follow. There was little room for compromise. At 32, she was in her prime.
On that crummy campus, her room was an oasis of art, civilization, rules and manners. She was dedicated to culturing us, wiping the philistine smirks off our faces, getting the gears in our sex-addled heads whirring. We studied Picasso, Dalí, Blake, Hemingway, Van Gogh, Dante, DeKooning, even lyrics by Iron Maiden and Pink Floyd. There was so much more. My head exploded. (She later added classical music to her syllabus. I would have killed for that. She would have broken down and cracked open the glories of Beethoven and Mahler with passion and ferocious intelligence and her students would weep.)
And woe to those who didn’t keep up. Mrs. Condon kicked out a jock when he couldn’t identify the ongoing famine in Ethiopia (he was back in class the next day), and ejected a cheerleader for cheating on the weekly vocabulary test (she never returned).
An unreconstructed Berkeley free-spirit, she maintained a rebellious streak — a “Question Authority” bumper sticker was posted by her desk for all to see and ponder — and actually told me what teachers to avoid or enroll with.
Mrs. Condon was a force. None of my college professors grazed her instructional power. Working at my second newspaper job in my mid-20s, I wrote her a note to thank her for the cultural exposure, no matter how demanding, that she instilled in me. She wrote me back, warmly pleased I was still writing.
A couple years before that, while in college, I ran into Mrs. Condon at a San Francisco Ballet production of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.” It was an awkward reunion, clumsy and blushing and impromptu and all, but nice nonetheless. I can only think she chalked up my attendance as a small triumph. I hope so.
“What were the main influences of your school days? Were they literary, political, or personal?” a character asks one of the Brodie set in the novel.
The girl responds: “There was a Miss Jean Brodie in her prime.”
I’d say the same, but in my version: “There was a Mrs. Lisa Condon in her prime.”