ALAN v23n3 - English Teachers, Mothers, and Metaphors

Volume 23, Number 3
Spring 1996

English Teachers, Mothers, and Metaphors

John Noell Moore

Budge Wilson's "The Metaphor" in The Leaving and Other Stories dramatizes Robert Frost's advice on the power of metaphor:

What I am pointing out is that unless you are at home in a metaphor, unless you have had your proper poetical education in the metaphor, you are not safe anywhere. Because if you are not at ease with figurative values: you don't know how far you may expect to ride it and when it will break down. (p. 35)

In "The Metaphor" twenty-two-year-old Charlotte makes sense of her "proper poetical education" and its relation to her changing adolescent identity, to a tragedy that challenges her sense of safety in the world, and to the meaning of her relationships with two women -- her literal and figurative mothers. Charlotte finds herself caught between the two worlds represented by these mothers. The first is the seventh-grade English classroom, in which the flamboyant Miss Hancock introduces her to the magic of metaphor as "an unfamiliar way of looking at things" and as "a brand-new method of talking about them" (p. 13). The second world is Charlotte's home, ruled by her orderly, efficient, career-oriented, and prosaic mother. Charlotte's adolescent education in metaphor and her adult language in telling her story are evidence that her "proper poetical education" gives her the power to read and write her world. Many English teachers who struggle to teach their students how to own language will see something of themselves in "The Metaphor."

Descriptions of Miss Hancock frame the story; she is clearly the mother figure with the lasting influence in Charlotte's life. Wilson contrasts the two mothers from the very beginning in the ways that Charlotte reads them. In the first sentence of "The Metaphor," Charlotte recalls Miss Hancock as "plump and unmarried and overenthusiastic" (p. 9). Well-chosen, each word describes her English teacher as the antithesis of Charlotte's biological mother who is thin, married, and totally in control. Charlotte is fascinated by Miss Hancock's whimsical clothes, her "peasant blouses encrusted with embroidery, from which loose threads invariably dangled" (p. 9), her make-up of "luminous frosted lipsticks" in shades of hot pink and magenta and "modulations of color, toners." Topping off her extraordinary countenance is a "profusion of busy curls.... brightly, aggressively golden" (p. 10). In contrast to Charlotte's creative language, her mother tersely describes Miss Hancock as "Overdone, too much enthusiasm. Flamboyant. Orange hair" (p. 20). Just what the child loves in this wonderful teacher is what her mother ridicules.

The story hinges on three powerful moments. The first is joyful and occurs on the day in seventh grade in which Miss Hancock teaches the lesson on "The Metaphor" that transforms Charlotte's language and her way of looking at the world. The second takes place on a day in tenth grade in which Miss Hancock, again Charlotte's teacher, tries to communicate with Charlotte during a painful time in the teacher's life. The third occurs after Miss Hancock is tragically killed. Before the accident, she reaches out to Charlotte for understanding; but, suffering the pangs of peer pressure, Charlotte rejects her. Charlotte's story is perhaps a way of cherishing the memory of an English teacher who nurtured her as her own mother could not and who gave her the gift of metaphoric insight.

The Metaphor Lesson
In remembering her seventh-grade class in 1965, Charlotte recalls how much she and her friends loved Miss Hancock, themselves "backward" because they "had not yet embraced sophistication, boredom, cruelty, drugs, alcohol, or sex" (p. 10). Because of their innocence and their sheltered environments, Miss Hancock "was able to survive, even flourish" as their teacher (p. 11). Charlotte recalls that when Miss Hancock read poetry aloud, they "sat bewitched, transformed," and that they were "as drugged by some words as some children are by electronic games" (p. 11). Perhaps this wonderful description makes us as English teachers nostalgic for the first days when we realized the mesmerizing and transformative power of words, when we began to house ourselves in them, to construct ourselves and our ideas in language made new by a provocative English teacher. Wilson's story reminds me that we are daily challenged to nurture, to mother, our students in the love of words, to help them understand how language enables them to read the existing world as well as write new worlds of their own.

This ability to write her world with words is what Charlotte most remembers about the famous lesson on "The Metaphor." Picture Miss Hancock entering that classroom, "eyes aglitter, hands clasped in front of her embroidered breasts" (p. 12), telling her students that this lesson will open a "whole new world of composition" to them "in one glorious whoosh ." She makes a metaphor in describing the power of figurative language as "a brand-new weapon in your arsenal of writing skills." Interpreting this moment later, Charlotte understands that this English teacher gave her "my entry to something I did not yet fully understand but that I knew I wanted." As teachers we have to trust that this kind of revelation will come long after we've celebrated selfhood with our students in poems such as Emily Dickinson's "I Dwell in Possibility" and Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself." Wilson's story gives us moments to pause and reflect on the significance of the lessons we teach.

After the lesson, Miss Hancock gives her assignment: Make a list, she tells the students, of "anything about which you feel deeply," and "describe everyone and everything on your list with a pungent and telling metaphor." I like her word pungent because it reminds me of the power of words to drive through the prosaic and create the poetic. Then she sets her young students free to write: "Write quickly.... Don't think too hard. Let your writing, your words, emerge from you like a mysterious and elegant blossom. Let it all out ... without restraint, without inhibition, with verve ." Miss Hancock models Frost's admonition to metaphor: she is "at ease with figurative values," and she can "ride" metaphors, as her instruction to "blossom" as writers attests. What strikes me is the power of her presence in that classroom and the words that Charlotte uses to describe her teaching: "fervent," "savoring one of her breathless pauses," "glowing," "expectant at her desk" (p. 13). Very often in my teaching I have been reminded by my students that we get what we expect as teachers. Given the option, let's expect greatness, as Miss Hancock seems to.

The writing complete, Miss Hancock encourages students to share what they've written; she values each student's work by writing each of their metaphors verbatim on the board. Students contribute metaphors such as "My dog is a clown with a spotted suit" and "My dad is a warm wood stove" (p. 14). When Charlotte suggests that hers is too long to write on the board, Miss Hancock implores her to share, and Charlotte begins: "My mother is a flawless modern building, created of glass and the smoothest pale concrete." Her language sets up an immediate contrast to Miss Hancock's soft appearance and her enthusiasm. Charlotte presents her mother as a person who makes no mistakes, who is an exterior, hard and cold. "Inside are business offices furnished with beige carpets and gleaming chromium," she continues. This nearly colorless interior is equally cold and orderly, polished to perfection, with "telex machines, mimeograph machines, and sleek typewriters... buzzing and clicking away" in every room. This is a machine world where information is absorbed and spit our "with a speed and skill that is not normal." The metaphor concludes with images of people who invade "the cool perfection of the building" and mar its "steel-gray tiles" as they track mud and dirt into a lobby where there are "no comfortable chairs" (pp.14-15).

Charlotte's metaphor aptly describes a mother who apparently does not nurture her, whose rigidity and devotion to order make life with her as uncomfortable as the chairs in the building's lobby. Charlotte's language constructs her mother in images of linearity that may be interpreted to suggest that her mother is more masculine than feminine, distant in the sense of a stereotypical stern father figure. In contrast, her first descriptions of Miss Hancock are full of images of circularity, suggesting the nurturing cycle of motherhood and the inclusiveness of mother love.

After she dismisses the class, Miss Hancock, sensitive to Charlotte's language, asks her if she wants to discuss anything about the metaphor; Charlotte, realizing that her teacher is "feeling concerned and kind, not nosy," replies that she doesn't really know what the metaphor means. Explaining that she feels "sort of creepy about it," that she's not "crazy about the feeling," she declines to discuss the metaphor. As with many young people on the verge of adolescence, she can write her feelings more easily than she can talk about them.

We discover that Charlotte is more at home in figurative language than she is in her literal home where the entrance hall recalls the gleaming business building of the metaphor for her mother. A "polished, antique, perfect" hall table in perfect taste with its "silver salver for messages" stands on a black and white tiled floor "unmarked by any sign of human contact" (p.18). Her mother has left her a note "in a flawless script" to tidy up her room. The whole house seems sterile, its black and white kitchen tiles dazzling to the eye and its cupboards and walls a "blinding spotless white" (p.18). With her new knowledge of metaphor, Charlotte describes this home as "a box" in which nobody lives.

After the lesson she begins to construct metaphors all the time, describing her mother as "a white picket fence -- straight, level" and as a "lofty mountain capped by virgin snow" (p. 22), all ways of describing her mother's rigidity, her demands for perfection, her distance, her ability to rise above the ordinary world. She continues to use linear, patriarchal images. She also begins to question her mother's "methods" that have left her "feeling so depraved, so unsalvageable" (p. 23); she remembers that the mothers of her friends have often lost control "nagged, yelled, scolded, did terrible and noisy things" (p. 23). Her mother seems incapable of such everyday responses to the little crises of living with children and young adults.

As the story continues, her mother seems less and less motherly. For example, Charlotte remembers a time in her childhood when she wanted to make a garden of blocks; this imaginary garden might symbolize her natural desire to create things and to tend to them. When she scattered blocks all over the carpet, her mother instructed her to make "a little garden" because that would be as "satisfying as a large, sprawling unmanageable" farm (p. 23). This admonition, of course, is her mother's way of controlling Charlotte's creativity, of prescribing the "proper" behavior, of managing the situation. Charlotte's mother is a manager, and the world she constructs is admired not only by Charlotte's friends who visit and marvel at such a "peaceful house" (p. 24), but also by adults in the community who consider her mother "the mainstay... the rock upon which the town was built" (p. 25). In the context of the story even this familiar metaphor constructs the mother as hard and cold, like the walls and floors of her office building.

The "cool perfection" of that building in Charlotte's metaphor has its counterpart in her mother's "cool and orderly spirit" (p. 23) as well as her unforgiving attitude toward others: "Perhaps because she juggled her community jobs, her housework, her cooking and her grooming with such a quiet, calm efficiency, she felt scorn for those less able to cope" (p. 25). In contrast to her images symbolizing her mother's strength and power, Charlotte describes her father in images that suggest a submissive wife. He is "thin and nervous," a man who is "careful about hanging up his clothes and keeping his sweaters in neat piles." "He certainly did not fight with my mother," she recalls; her parents hardly communicated. She captures her father's powerlessness in a final domestic image of a man subdued, trained in the proper behavior: "He had probably learned early that to complain is weak, to rejoice is childish, to laugh is noisy. And moving around raises dust" (pp, 24-25). These last words define the sterility and stasis of Charlotte's house and her parents' relationship. Her education in metaphor provides an escape from this world.

A Failure to Communicate
The second significant moment in "The Metaphor" occurs when Charlotte enters the tenth grade in a new school, her family having moved the summer before. Sixteen, she has masked some of the youthful exuberance of the metaphor maker with an attitude that is "outwardly blase" and "singleminded." She is also maturing physically: "I was pretty," she recalls: "I had real curves." Psychologically, however, she prefers to be "anonymous": "I melted into the crowd" (p. 29).

She is surprised to discover that her English teacher is Miss Hancock, whose fifteen years of "marked success" with seventh graders has "finally transported her to high places." Charlotte recalls, appropriately in metaphor, that Miss Hancock entered the room on the first day of class with "wings spread, ready to fly" (p. 30). The cool sophomores, however, do not appreciate her exuberance and ridicule her when she begins reciting Tennyson's "Ulysses" to them: "Behold the Bard!" "Bliss! Oh, poetic bliss!" Hancock! Whocock? Hancock! Hurray!" Charlotte registers the moment in horror: Having constructed herself as a "cool and careful person," she does not know what to do. Her description of her dilemma is typical of adolescent responses to situations which pull them backwards toward childhood allegiances and forward toward identity and acceptance in their peer group. Characteristically, Charlotte constructs this dilemma as a metaphor: "I was caught in a stranglehold somewhere between shocked embarrassment and a terrible desire for concealment" (p. 32). Her solution is to hide behind her folder so that Miss Hancock cannot see her. At this point the narrative breaks down because Charlotte tells us that Miss Hancock does not recognize her for ten days. I wonder: Didn't Miss Hancock have a roll? Didn't she take attendance?

Anyway, after Miss Hancock recognizes her, Charlotte reluctantly stays after class to talk; Miss Hancock asks right away, "Still writing metaphors?" to which Charlotte replies with the usual adolescent nonchalance, "Oh, I dunno" (p. 33). Actually, Charlotte writes each night in a notebook she keeps especially for creating metaphors. In this scene she makes no effort to connect to Miss Hancock, who does not push the issue, but whose eyes are "quiet, pleading." In subsequent weeks, Miss Hancock does not try to reach Charlotte again, but each day she enters the classroom "white with tension" and leaves it "defeated" (p. 33). Ironically she becomes the antithesis of the hero in the Tennyson lines with which she began the first class: "Yet all experience is an arch wherethro' / Gleams that untravell'd world, whose margin fades / For ever and for ever when I move" (p. 31). Having given Charlotte a life in metaphor, she seems powerless to fly above the daily world of the high school where her teaching goes unappreciated. Charlotte does nothing to help: "I did not tell a living soul that I had ever seen her before" (p. 33). This experience sets the scene for the third important moment in the story.

A Tragic Lesson
Without warning, "The Metaphor" takes a tragic turn: "One late afternoon in March of that year, Miss Hancock stepped off a curb in front of the school and was killed instantly by a school bus" (p. 34). How are we to read this event? Charlotte, overwrought, takes blame for Miss Hancock's death: "I killed her! I killed her!" (p. 35). When she explains how her classmates have taunted Miss Hancock, her mother response is characteristically cold and objective: "For goodness' sake, Charlotte... don't lose perspective." Ironically, her mother blames Miss Hancock for her own death: "A woman like that can't survive for five minutes in the high schools of today." Perhaps, she speculates, it could have been an accident: "There's a great deal of ice. It would be very easy to slip under a school bus." This is replaced quickly, however, by another cold and thoughtless remark: "And she didn't strike me as the sort of person who would exercise any sensible kind of caution" (p. 36). Her language demonstrates her prosaic way of reading the world: People are responsible for their actions; it is easy to categorize people who cannot cope, and it is equally easy to dismiss them as victims of their own shortcomings.

The story ends in two metaphors; the first explains how Charlotte copes with Miss Hancock's death and her mother's view of the world, and the second ends the story in a celebration of a teacher whose gift of language forever changed her life.

The Uncoiling
Despondent over Miss Hancock's sudden death, Charlotte stays home from school, weeps uncontrollably at times, and continues to blame herself. Her mother reaches a point at which she can no longer tolerate this behavior. When she addresses Charlotte in the final confrontation of the story, Charlotte recalls: "I knew that voice, that tone. So calm, so quiet, so able to silence me with one word." As if to shut her mother out, she curls "up in a tight ball on the sofa" while her mother explains how to deal with the death: First, Charlotte must regain control of herself: "A sure and perfect control is what separates the civilized from the uncivilized," her mother tells her. Her words "sure and perfect control" indicate that she believes herself and others to be capable of living in an absolute world that clearly dichotomizes all of human life into discreet categories. Second, Charlotte can use reason to understand the death: "If you would examine this whole perfectly natural situation with a modicum of rationality, you would see that she got exactly what she deserved." "Examine" suggests objectivity, and her phrase "modicum of rationality" removes her even further from the emotional trauma that Charlotte is suffering. She cannot understand that this situation is not "perfectly natural" for her daughter. All of her language casts her as the antithesis of the imaginative and sensitive Miss Hancock, who mothers Charlotte more than her biological mother does. Finally, she says, Charlotte has a responsibility to her family: "You're disturbing the even tenor of our home" (p. 37). This carefully constructed, perfect dwelling, is no "home" for Charlotte; it is a shell, at best a box from which she comes and goes.

Charlotte is at home in metaphor, and as the narrator of this scene, she constructs a metaphor that brings the opening image of the "tight ball on the sofa" full circle: "I said nothing. With a sure and perfect control, I uncoiled myself from the fetal position on the sofa. I stood up and left the living room" (p. 37). Her language symbolizes the literal and metaphoric leaving that takes place in this scene. The image of uncoiling describes Charlotte's change in physical position but also symbolizes her mental and emotional change: she symbolically gives birth to herself as a young woman. When she writes over her mother's words "sure and perfect control," she affirms the power that she gains over her own life when she walks out of the room and rejects her mother's attempts to dominate her thinking.

Similarly, she transforms her mother's language into her own when she takes up residency in the house of metaphor where she can deal with the death of her linguistic mother Miss Hancock: "extravagantly, without a modicum of rationality, I began to write" (p. 38). What she writes is a metaphor that describes a circle, a symbol long "associated with the idea of a protected or consecrated space, the center of the motherland, a ceremonial space where all the inhabitants were equal" (Walker, p. 4) .

The Birthday Cake
Charlotte's last metaphor creates Miss Hancock as a birthday cake with extravagant frosting that is intensely peppermint, a richly chocolate cake decorated with "white roses and lime-green leaves." This extraordinary cake is filled with party favors that, if kept, will turn into "pure gold." Here she creates another metaphor to suggest the value of her experiences with her teacher, and it also suggests the transformative power of language. Reversing her mother's earlier evaluation of Miss Hancock's colorful make-up, she concludes the metaphor by noting that most children would take delight in such a cake while "most grown-ups would have thrown it away after one brief glance at the frosting" (p. 38). In Miss Hancock's seventh-grade English classroom Charlotte learns to create worlds in metaphor when her imagination is mothered by an English teacher. Because Miss Hancock begins the young girl's "proper poetical education" as Frost calls it, Charlotte is "safe anywhere." She is, as her story shows, "at home in a metaphor"; "at ease with figurative values," she has the power to construct worlds in words. With Walt Whitman, she can sing the song of herself, and with Emily Dickinson, she can "dwell in possibility." This is the power of teaching English that Budge Wilson celebrates in "The Metaphor."

Works Cited
Frost, Robert. "Education by Poetry." Selected Prose of Robert Frost . Ed. Hyde Cox and Edward Connery Latham. Collier, 1972, pp. 33-46.

Walker, Barbara G. "Circle." The Woman's Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects . Harper Collins, 1988, p. 6.

Wilson, Budge. "The Metaphor." The Leaving and Other Stories . Philomel, 1990.

John Noell Moore, a former high-school English teacher, earned his Ph.D. at Virginia Tech where he has taught English for the past three years. In August he will become Assistant Professor of English and Curriculum and Instruction at Purdue University. His forthcoming book from Heinemann Boynton/Cook includes a chapter on The Leaving . He was a 1994 recipient of an ALAN Foundation Award for research in YA literature.