Ch. 4.  “To Be or Not"

One October day during my freshman year I was sitting in health class, having finished all of my homework in the period of time between lectures. I had read the chapter we were currently studying, which was sufficient preparation for the worksheets and quizzes we would be offered later.  There was a timid knock at the door, and my older sister Jane appeared. 

Jane is three years older than I. Like mom she had long straight black hair. Unlike mom she would often grin widely, with an infectious smile that made you want to grin whenever you were blessed enough to see it. She had a big gap between the front teeth of her toothy grin. I thought she was secretly self-conscious of the gap, but she never complained about it that I remember hearing.  She had no middle name, which I guess is pretty unusual, especially in the South. (I don’t have a middle name either. I like to tell my astronomy students that my middle name is “Space.”) Jane was a good student, and often helped me with my homework, especially when I was younger. Simply because she was a good student, not a party girl or a druggie, that reduced her circle of friends to a few good kids and a number of acquaintances. She was somewhat heavy then, and I teased her mercilessly about it as brothers do. That’s one of the things that led me to believe in karma, because now she’s much smaller than I am. What goes around, comes around. 

Jane entered the room and asked our teacher C.J. Holt if he minded if I went with her somewhere. Holt was a career P.E. teacher, destined for some assistant principalship or associate superintendent of something or other in the future. If you were an athlete, you called him “C.J.,” and if you were anyone else, it was “Mr. Holt.” He was a thin man with jet-black hair, with a coach’s air of worldliness and wisdom (as seen from a 13 year old’s perspective). He also had this way of walking that was almost languid. He just sort of flowed along the floor, like spilled mercury crawling along the top of a table (don’t ask.) I got along well enough with him because I didn’t talk back and attempted to do what I was told without complaining or whining, which was sufficiently rare, apparently, to be noteworthy in his mind. 

He gave me a discerning look, and said “You got your work done, son?” I nodded, surprised he needed to ask. “All right, but don’t make a habit out of it,” he said, languidly rippling his entire arm at me in dismissal. Jane waved at me (Cmon!), and I motioned her over to my desk. 

“What’s going on?” I asked. 

“Miss Caudill wants to see you,” she replied. 

My English teacher? Did I forget to turn something in? I asked, “What for?”

“She wants you to help read a play.”

“You mean act? On a stage?”


“No thanks.” I started to put my head down on my desk where it had been before my sister arrived. Mr. Holt looked at us, with a What’s taking so long? look in his eyes.  I swear it took him all of three seconds just to turn his head towards us.

“Oh, come on, you’ll love it,” she said, pleading with her eyes.

I shook my head no again.

 “I promised her you’d come.” 

Huh. On consideration it seemed a small price to pay to keep the peace with Jane at home, and it would get me out of Health. In another one of those odd moments of clarity I thought: Would I have to answer to my future self if I passed an opportunity to do something new and interesting instead of filling out worksheets and dozing in a chair? Why else had I agreed to go to high school early in the first place?

I got up and nodded at the coach. He grunted in reply, smoothly tilting his chin slightly upward and somehow aiming it at the door at the same time.

I reluctantly followed her down the hall. A few days ago I was standing talking to Jane in the hall when someone asked her if I was her little brother. She allowed that I was, reluctantly it seemed to me. In a little jab of little brother vengeance, I commented to Jane and her friend that by the time she graduated, people would ask her if she were my older sister.  Later I regretted the jibe as she really hadn’t done anything to deserve it, but she took it in stride even as she recalled it, and told me it came true, before she graduated. We were three years apart in age, but because I skipped a year, I was a freshman while she was a junior. 

Miss (Cheryl) Caudill was my freshman English teacher. She and everyone else pronounced her name Shur-ull. She was currently teaching us sentence diagramming, which was close enough to graphing that it made me really enjoy English. Frankly, I don’t remember much else I learned in freshman English; unlike most people, I don’t view that as equivalent to not learning anything. Like most of my other classes, freshman English was not inspirational to me but it became part of the general background knowledge I operate with on a daily basis. As far as sentence diagramming goes, I am sure that was vanishingly rare then, and even more so now because it is “pedagogically unsound” to teach sentence diagramming these days.

Miss Caudill ran a reasonably tight ship in freshman English. I remember we had to start each class by carefully lining up the feet of our desks on designated cracks and rows in the tile floor; when papers were written and ready to turn in they had to be folded lengthwise, no staples (because none were provided for teachers by the office) with name, assignment title, class period, and date on the outside of the left edge of the paper. She kept papers bundled with rubber bands, bundling them like stacks of money to be deposited in a safe somewhere.  Grading was done in red pencil with the final score circled in a swirl. 

A few steps away from my PE class I arrived at Miss Caudill’s classroom. It was dramatically different than the sparse container of desks and sleeping students I had just left. They had recently renovated the school by painting all the rooms, adding drop ceilings, and fixing window locks, etc. The door was covered with paint, too, bright orange and yellow and red, and looked like there had been fingerpainting and even feet walking up the side of the wall. My sister told me Athena Hamnill had been lifted by some of the boys as she walked up the door with paint on her feet. Every teacher was allowed to select the color for their room. Mr. Simmons (a redhead) picked green. Mrs. Hayword (Senior English and all that implies) selected bright orange, the better to keep her students awake, or possibly just stunned. Miss (Cheryl) Caudill’s room, on the inside, was primarily blue. Even the floor tile had been colored to match the decor. In today’s more corporate school environments such personal choices would never be allowed.

As I arrived in Miss (Cheryl) Caudill’s room, I looked at the pair of happy-sad faces (Comedy and Tragedy, I learned later) that were painted on a segment of plastered wall between two windows, one of which was open. There was, of course, no air conditioning, and few fans. A tattered carpet covered the rear third of the room, and a beat-up couch resided there as if it had been there forever. From the smell of it, it probably had. Strange sparkling fabrics and expandable hosiery, feather boas, hats and other costuming materials were strewn about. In fact, the room looked like a tornado had struck, in contrast to the neatly organized room I inhabited during the day during freshman English. 

The desks which were normally set into rigid lines during the day were scattered almost randomly about leaving a large empty space in the center front of the room. The room contained perhaps a dozen upperclassmen lounging around holding small folded-up copies of what I presumed were scripts.  I walked into the room and maneuvered between the jumbled desks to get out of the way. There was, I noted, someone sitting on the floor on the opposite side of Miss Caudill’s desk. 

Sitting cross-legged, perusing a script held in both hands, was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. She was wearing close-fitting jeans, sandals, and a blue blouse. I glanced at her and glanced away and then back, as if my brain were unable to decide if it was socially acceptable to stare.

Miss Caudill was talking to someone, and that afforded me the opportunity to look again at the girl, whose golden blonde hair flowed off of her shoulders, framing her face. She looked up and saw me, and smiled. 

Her eyes were blue, and her lips were covered in some sort of lipstick. Her hair was feathered in the style of the time, swept back from her face, which had rounded cheeks, a smallish chin, and an impish button nose.  As she noted me staring at her, her smile widened slightly. Her clothes match her eye color, I thought. Why is this the first time in my life I’ve ever noticed someone’s eye color matching their clothes?

Other incoherent thoughts raged through my head as my past, present, and future incarnations argued for priority.

Then Jane nudged me, and the moment, as they say, was lost. What? Whaaat? I started to say, but then saw Miss Caudill looking at me. 

Miss Caudill was perched on top of her desk, legs crossed, directing students as if she were directing traffic, with her hands.  This was considerably different than her behavior during English, where she directed the class mostly from behind her desk and often from a seated position. Miss Caudill smiled at me, and hopped off the desk. 

“There you are, Mason,” she said.  She often referred to us by our last names. She asked, “Have you ever been in a play?”

“Not really.” I replied. Would I just be a person carrying a cardboard tree, like in an elementary school pageant?  

“That’s all right,” she said. “You can learn as you go.” She picked up a copy of a paperback book and rifled through the pages. “Here we go. Now let me explain what is happening here.” 

“Benny here plays Petruchio,” she said, pointing at a tall, dark haired upperclassman. He stood with his arms folded, as if he might spontaneously decide to leave, hopping in a car or on the back of a motorcycle, departing for parts unknown.  He had hair that covered his neck and hung below his collar, cut tapered in rock-star fashion. Mostly it hung straight down. He had these long bangs that nearly reached his eyes, which I always though looked cool but would be annoying in practice. It seemed to me that he had been around the block a few times, most likely at excessive rates of speed. He looked like he might be one of those new crop of guys popular in the early disco era who spent time on his hair beyond just washing and drying it. Defined muscles flexed at where his biceps emerged from his black short sleeve shirt. Best not irritate this fellow, I thought. 

“Petruchio is a young wealthy aristocrat who is looking for a bride,” said Miss Caudill, pointing at Benny. “You, on the other hand, will be Grumio, his manservant.”

“Man...servant?” I said. “Like a butler?”

She chuckled. “Not exactly. More like ... a sidekick.” OK, sidekick any thirteen-year-old boy could understand. I nodded. I noted out of the corner of my eye the blonde-headed girl was looking at us. When she saw me look back at her, she rose, and I couldn’t help but notice the tightness of her jeans and the ...interesting curvature they revealed. She retreated to the back of the room. I followed her progress as long as I could without turning away from Miss Caudill. 

“A lazy ne’er-do-well drinking buddy sidekick,” Miss Caudill continued. “Not an assistant as much as much as loyal servant that is just competent enough to keep his job. Raynard, give him your script,” she continued. Raynard Smith, a tall junior with a crop of poorly-controlled red hair and a loping (not languid) gait, handed over his script. Handwritten at the top of the script was the word “Grumio” in Miss Caudill’s elaborately tilted script, along with strange coded notations such as XUSR, USL, Face DSR, and so on. Bits and pieces of the Shakespearean dialog were crossed out with lines through the text.  On a somewhat more ominous note, there were signs of extensive, and repeated, erasures. 

“Stand there,” said Miss Caudill. She was a large woman, with dark coppery-colored hair set high on her forehead. She had moved behind her desk after arranging us, and now was sitting astride a chair turned backwards as a man would. She was also graceful for a large woman. I noted how she pointed her toes as she walked, and seemed to glide along the floor as she moved. (I know it seems I’m a little overly concerned with how people moved, but believe me I didn’t think about it at the time. It’s something you sort of notice in retrospect once you learn how to walk... ask any dancer and they’ll know what I mean. ) She usually wore pants suits and that was true that day. I remember thinking her favorite color was brown since so many of her clothes were that color. She was leaning over the back of the chair making it tilt up forward on two legs in the fashion that would have caused any other teacher to smack a ruler on a desk and declare that a toppling was imminent. She pointed at an X marked on the floor in masking tape. 

Standing on an adjacent X was Benny. It was probably the first time he had ever laid eyes on me, even in a school of 400. That could have been due to the fact that the top of my head was even with the bottom of his chin, more or less. 

“You can’t be serious, Caudill,” he said. He always called Miss Caudill “Caudill.” As if she were the only one. 

“I’m dead serious,” she said. “You need someone smaller than you to play against, and Raynard is too big, so he can be Biondello instead. We tried to cast Pat as Grumio, but she dropped out because it’s a man’s part. Hoss here is a small fellow. He can be Grumio.” She said, looking at me but speaking to Benny, “Start reading at the top of page twelve.” She looked at me again. “He is going to get you to try to knock on the door, but you think he means for you to hit him instead. That’s the joke.” She waved her hands in little excited circles as she talked. She seemed so animated about it all. This was completely unlike her behavior in English class, where she was much more businesslike, less friendly, always behind the desk, and... less cheerful.

“Here, sirrah, knock me here and knock me soundly,” Benny said, in what seemed to me to be a fair facsimile of a British accent.  There was no door to knock upon, but Benny gestured to the wall, as if a door were there. 

“Uh,” I said, looking around. I was still trying to wrap my head around why she referred to me as Hoss when Hoss Cartwright was a great big strapping fellow. “What am I supposed to do?”

“Just read the words next to where it says ‘Grumio’,” she said. 

“Oh,” I said. “Knock sir, whom should I knock? Grumio assumes a fighting stance,” I said, in what must have been the worst possible delivery of that line in theatrical history. Everyone laughed, but they were quickly shushed. 

“Don’t read the part in the brackets, child,” said Miss Caudill. “Those are directions that tell you what to do with your body.”

“Oh. Uh, sorry.” Duh. That’s obvious. Why am I having so much trouble engaging my brain? I thought. Not realizing what would be the simplest explanation, my next thought was Where’s that girl?

“Villain, you shall knock me here and knock me soundly!” shouted Benny. I was so startled I almost dropped my script. Focus.

“Why, master, has any man here... refused your worship?” I read haltingly. 

“Stop,” said Miss Caudill. “It says ‘rebused,’ not ‘refused.’” 

“Caudill, this ain’t gonna work–” began Benny. He was speaking to her, but looking at me.

“Hush,” she commanded, and surprisingly, he did. We went through about two pages of the lines, haltingly, and then did it again, more smoothly. I wasn’t quite so befuddled as the first time. Just when I was starting to feel as if I was getting the hang of the pronunciation of the words, she stopped us again. She looked at my sister. “You said he was funny. He’s not funny.” She looked at me. “You’re not funny, Hoss.”

My sister, arms crossed across her chest and one knee bent, knew her reputation was at stake, so she gave me a stare worthy of Lucy Van Pelt as she said, “Use one of your funny voices.”

“Which one?” I said. I wasn’t, as they say these days, quite with the program yet. 

At home I liked to imitate famous people, and was a big fan of Rich Little. Most of my impressions were my impression of Rich Little doing people I’d never seen for myself. (“Will you shut up talking with those God-damn stupid voices! I work hard all day and don’t need to hear that–”) My father’s opinions didn’t stop me, though.  He didn’t like it when I whistled, either. That damn pucker makes you look like you got an asshole in your face, he would say occasionally. I honestly don’t think he was deliberately trying to be mean to me; he never called me stupid or, God forbid, lazy. He was just tired and grumpy from working so hard building houses and pouring concrete and driving untold miles to and from work. 

I viewed him as a force of nature, not controllable or solvable, but avoidable. I took to whistling when I was alone. 

“Richard Nixon,” Jane said. 

I shook my face to make my cheeks rattle to drop into “Richard Nixon” mode. Using my best impression of Rich Little’s version of the gravelly president, I said “Why, master, has any man here rebused your worship?” 

“No,” said Miss Caudill. Now she was holding her head in her hands. “Can you make up a voice for someone who isn’t too bright, sounds funny, but doesn’t sound like someone on TV?”

I considered this and responded with a nasal sort of doofus voice, with a sort of hyuk-hyuk quality to it, an exaggerated goofy voice. At the last moment I added a lisp. “Knock, thir? Whom thould I knock?”

“That’ll do for now,” she said. We read a few more lines and she said, “I can’t understand you now, tone it down,” and I did. A few more lines later, she said “Your diction needs work. You’re not enunciating when you say ‘Has any man...’.”  She waved her hand in a circle to indicate she meant to include the entire line.

“My diction is fine, thank you very much,” I said in a faux British accent. I thought I was smart for knowing what diction was, and confused knowing a definition with being able to do it. “I sound very educated, don’t I?” I continued. However, when I said “don’t I?” it came out without the “t”; which is why Miss Caudill said–

“Donii is the plural of doughnut. You mean to say “don’t I.” Try again.” 

I felt the heat of my flushed face, and to add insult to injury, I dropped my script. As I picked it up somehow managed to twist around and noted the blonde girl– a young woman, really– was facing the back of the room and hadn’t witnessed my minor humiliation at the hands of my English teacher. Concentrate. I repeated the line, enunciating the t. 

“Better,” she said. “Now say your line again with the funny voice.” 

“Why, Mathter, hath any man rebuthed your worthip?” I smiled broadly, finally letting the idea connect in my head that this was a comedy and I was being instructed to be funny. My brain felt like it finally managed to slip out of neutral and shift into a forward moving gear. I bugged my eyes out and feigned innocent indignation, raising my fists and gyrating them wildly. 

“You’re hired.” She turned to my sister. “Go tell C.J. to let him stay down here the rest of the period, and I’ll talk to him after school.” She said, almost muttering, intended for Jane’s ears alone, “He’s pretty bad but at least he follows directions.”  That was the first time, but not the last, that I learned being able to take direction was more important than being talented.

“Um,” I said.

“Yes, child?” she replied. 

“Um, what am I hired for?” Everyone looked at me as if I were mad. Miss Caudill merely smiled. 

“You’re going to be in a play,” Miss Caudill said. “Shakespeare. The Taming of the Shrew.”

“Oh.” William Shakespeare, my mind said to me. To be or not to be. Memory flashed; I had a sudden vision of myself reclined on my brother Bill’s leather couch, reading encyclopedia volumes for fun, thinking some day you’ll need to know almost everything you’ll ever read. I remembered a photo, a photo of a bust of Shakespeare on the page with the entry. He was bald on top with a rim of hair below, like our principal. English playwright and poet. 1600’s. Wrote a bunch of famous plays. Romeo and Juliet. Hamlet. I didn’t know anything about Taming of the Shrew, but I suspected it wasn’t about training small rodents. 

If it got me out of health class and the piercing stares of C.J. Holt, that was good enough for me.  Not that I was actually asked what I wanted. As it turned out, I had plenty of other motivations for coming to rehearsal.

As we rode the bus home that evening, I sat next to my sister Jane. Her long black hair flipped in and out of the window we had lowered when the ride began. 

“Well,” said Jane. “What did you think of your first day of drama?”

“It was all right,” I said. “I get to act goofy and no one tells me to stop.”

“I didn’t realize you would be such a ham,” she said. 

I looked at her and snorted like a pig. That made her laugh. I looked at her again, and after a couple of moments worked up the courage to ask, “Who was that girl?”

“What girl?”

What girl? “The girl, the girl, the blonde-headed girl in Miss Caudill’s room,” I managed to squeak. Oh, that wasn’t smooth at all. 

“Oh, that’s Lyn Anderson,” said my sister. “She’s Miss Caudill’s niece.” My sister looked at me as if she was noting that it was the first time in my entire thirteen trips around the sun I had ever asked her about a girl.  In all likelihood, it was. She raised an eyebrow at me. “She’s a senior. She’s nice.” 

Nice. “Um, yeah. I thought she looked older.” She looked like a college student to me, or could pass for one easily enough. 

“Why do you ask?”

A slight hesitation, less than a tenth of a second; still too long, though.

“No reason. Just curious.”

Riiight said my sister’s eyes. “She plays Katherine, who is in a lot of scenes with Petruchio. You’re going to see a lot more of her. Petruchio and Kate and Grumio have a lot of scenes together.” She pulled in her wayward hair from the open window and tied it into a ponytail with a rubber band. Watching me the entire time. 

“Mmm,” I grunted, noncommittally. My heart and my mind engaged in a high-speed race and kept me silent for the rest of the ride home. I pulled out the script Miss Caudill had given me to study and began reading the play from the first scene. The words on the page, curiously, did not match the words running through my mind at all. If I get a chance to talk to her, I thought, what could I possibly say that she would find interesting?

I had absolutely no idea. None of the various permutations and combinations of who I might be in the future had any bright ideas, either. 


© Jeff Adkins 2014