My brain stores strange things. I know that the Beauvais Cathedral in France was never finished because, at 158 feet tall, its architecture extended beyond the strengthening physics of the flying buttress. It collapsed three times. I know that in the 60’s Jim Hall built a racecar, the Chaparral, which used suction to give it a winning edge. I know that no high school in the country has a tardy policy that works.
Not only do I pack away useless facts, I suspect that my brain even sports a special lobe for the memory of the many odd people who would otherwise rattle around loose in my head. Why these people would occupy real estate in such an over-populated and dilapidated neighborhood, is unclear, yet, there they are: my aunt and uncle who, in one year, spent $5000 staying in a motel in Omaha; a student who had a cat named Laundry; my mother-in-law who “ironed” her eggplant before she cooked it. My head is as full of eccentric people as a Dickens novel, and perhaps the strangest of them all is Miss Dunlap.
I seldom watch a Rosetta Stone ad without the specter of Miss Dunlap stalking across the screen. The folks at Rosetta Stone claim the ability to teach me a foreign language without memorization, which flips my cynic switch -- I remember Miss Dunlap’s French class and those horrid little verb quizzes, the impossible conjugations, and the nonsense of gendered nouns. What, pray tell, is essentially feminine about a window? I spent quite a bit of time in her class staring through the second-story nine-paned windows (les fenêtres) of Dunlap’s classroom – out across the ten-foot lilac hedges to the American elms that, in the earl 60’s, lined 64th Street in Lincoln, Nebraska. Perhaps that’s why I recall that French noun; boredom was a factor in that class, maybe that’s why I memorized her.
I remember Miss Dunlap as mostly blue and white. She never wore any other colors. Each year she’d go to Miller & Paine and buy three new Arnel jersey shirtwaist dresses, each in a slightly different blue and white floral print. The dresses all sported matching belts and buttons and she wore them with a string of pearls at her wrinkled neck and a huge diamond ring on her left hand. (Rumor had it that her fiancé had been killed in WWII, which gave her an aura of mystery and drama, a certain fierceness.) Her skin was pale and crinkled, her hair pinched into merciless finger-waves, and as silver-white as heirloom sterling.
Dunlap not only wore blue and white, but she drove it. I’d often see her around town in her ’57 blue and white Buick. That car was as big as a yacht and catching a glimpse of her at the wheel -- her knuckles firmly placed at one and eleven, her head, coiffed in that helmety hair, stretching forward so she could peer over the giant dash -- always made me chuckle.
Somehow I knew where she lived -- in a brick ranch house on an upper middle class street that I swear came right off the Monopoly board – Atlanta? Pacific? That neighborhood. I knew from her unusual curriculum that during the summers she lived in Paris, in an apartment she owned, on the Champs de Mars – just down from the Eiffel Tower. That’s Boardwalk. We all wondered how an unmarried French teacher from Lincoln, Nebraska, made enough money to live like she did, and what puzzled us even more, was her intense frugality in the midst of what looked like luxury -- limiting oneself to three dresses a year isn’t going to net enough to summer in Paris. Oh, the mystery.
No, Dunlap never let anything go to waste. When she gave verb quizzes – every Friday – she’d pass out quarter-sheets of blank newsprint; she’d fold, score, and tear those sheets, flashing that huge diamond, as she stood in front of each row of desks, making sure she only passed out the requisite number. One day she’d gone through this ritual and then changed her mind – quite possibly the only time in her life she re-thought things – then strode around the room, gathering the unused squares of paper and tucking them into her desk drawer.
Her desk. It was, with the exception of two items, always empty. I’ve spent most of my life in classrooms, at one end or the other, and hers is the only empty desk I ever saw. When I was teaching I counted myself lucky a few times a year to even find my desk; the mess would get so thick it appeared to levitate – I was always relieved to locate wood. But Dunlap’s old oak desk was bare and polished. Always. The only desk-worthy items in that room were a 4-inch tall brass Eiffel Tower and a tiny French flag that sat in lonely splendor on the upper right-hand corner, and even they were banished to the locked bottom drawer at the end of each day -- for their own protection, I’m sure; you never know when a kleptomaniac Francophilic janitor might come along.
Perhaps I remember Miss Dunlap because of her rituals. Her first move each class was to unlock her bottom desk drawer and take out a blue and white Miller & Paine paper bag (a new one each year, which made me think it was the sack in which she’d carried home her new dresses); it held her class notebooks – a different colored spiral for each section she taught. She’d select the correct notebook, then slip the remaining ones sideways into the bag. (It was the same bag all year and by spring it would be soft and fuzzy around the edges.) Then she’d lock the bag back in the drawer. Each lesson contained a token mention of French verbs (French was obviously the superior language because it provided 17 verb tenses to the English language’s mere 6.), a yank-down of an aerial photograph map of Paris, an opening of the cupboard. The cupboard – the size of a TV armoire – was filled with her collection of 3-D color slides of Paris. She’d choose a boxful, show us on the map where she was standing when she took the pictures, and demonstrate the direction we should turn as we viewed them. Then we’d all sit and wait until the viewer arrived at our desk, we’d swivel about until we faced the proper direction, and then we’d drink in the front of Notre Dame, or the Bastille, or the Louvre. Barring the Friday verb quiz, this was class.
I learned that Camembert is the best cheese (The French are superior because they make hundreds of kinds of cheese and we make Velveeta.) I learned not to get drunk on red wine (not even French red wine). I learned where to pick up the ferry ride through the sewers of Paris (just off Pont Neuf, not far from Notre Dame). I know that in Montmartre, at the foot of the stairs coming down from Sacre Coeur is a little bar called La Lapine Agile. I know where the flea markets are, how to get from the Champs de Mars and the Eiffel Tower to the Champs Elysee and its Arc du Triumph. I know where to find Chanel, and what the display windows at Balanchiaga looked like. Still, when watching movies set in Paris, I recognize streets and parks and landmarks; I can picture them on Dunlap’s map. I’m sure I could find my way around Paris – but I can’t speak French. Imagine my dismay when my French professor my freshman year in college assigned us to read Le Crime de Sylvester Bonard -- by Friday, in French! My “masters” degree in Parisian geography didn’t help much.
One year my schedule put me in Miss Dunlap’s class the last period, so I learned her end-of-the-day rituals as well. Each day, five minutes before the last bell, she would return the class notebook to its worn blue and white bag and tuck it into the bottom drawer – she didn’t appear to take work home with her. She’d gather her desk ornaments and tuck them also into that bottom drawer, which she carefully locked. Then, she’d march to the black board (They were actually black back then.), grab an eraser, jam it into the upper right corner of the board, which required a straight arm, raised to about two o’clock. Then she’d stomp to the opposite end, holding the eraser to a perfectly horizontal trajectory. This accomplished, her arm would drop and she’d return to begin again, each pass exactly one eraser-width lower than the one before. That year she had a student teacher – a puzzled and frustrated young man whom she only allowed to sit at the back of the room and try to make sense of what he was witnessing. One day Miss Dunlap left class early and he got to take over. Without a word he marched to the front of the class, grabbed the eraser, swaggered to the end of the board and completed the sacred process in perfect Dunlapian style. We applauded. He bowed. We left.
I last sat in Miss Dunlap’s class overlooking the lilacs in the spring of 1963; she was then about the age I am now. I have no idea what happened to her. I hope she lived out her days in that elegant old apartment by the Eiffel Tower – she’d spent her whole life loving it; she belonged there. I can’t say that I was ever fond of Miss Dunlap – she didn’t make friends of her students. I was fond of George Rush, my art teacher.; he did. I can’t say I admired her – I admired John McCormick, my world lit teacher -- so much that I spent my whole life trying to do for my students what he did for me. But Dunlap, whose first name I’ve never known, Dunlap who taught me very little French, is still alive and well in depths my brain, and I don’t think she’s leaving anytime soon. Now she’s in your head, too.