She was twenty-five and I was fourteen. She was a virgin and I was not. She was my high-school teacher of chemistry, the one teacher in any school who ever gave me a failing grade.
Her name was Eleanor Brophy, and she had a touch of Irish accent and a lot of Irish softness. The only time I saw her angry was when one of the boys in the class mocked something I said at the blackboard, where I was fumbling an answer, and she turned on him. My work got worse and worse through the year. I had taken chemistry because I was still obeying a willed ambition to be a doctor. The worse my work got, the more often she kept me after school for conferences. “Kauffmann,” she would say, “I don’t understand it. You write all those poems, but you can’t remember valences.”
I was writing poems and stories, some of which were published in the school magazine, and whenever she kept me to go over a wretched test paper, or even if she did not, I asked her whether she wanted to read something of mine. I did this partly as tactics, which she saw. But part of it was her gray eyes with the fierce brows so unlike her manner. She saw that, too.
She had long brown hair that she wore in a bun, and a broad brow and serene smile. Her features and her round strong neck I saw again later in the singer Flagstad. Miss Brophy was flat-chested and she moved with a somewhat graceless pigeon-toed walk. But I couldn’t imagine anything about her being different from what it was, which is one definition of perfection.
The school was at the top of the Bronx on the edge of a park. I lived in Manhattan. She had a new Model A Ford, and one day after she had kept me to go over a paper, she said she was driving downtown a bit and would give me a lift. On the way she accidentally went through a red light. I gloated. She laughed and blushed. “Ah, now you’ve got something on me, I suppose.”
I failed the state regents’ exam at the end of the year, she failed me in the course, and I had to take it again in order to graduate the next June. The second time round I did superbly in chemistry, as I got a sudden vision of how it was supposed to go, basically, and everything followed easily from that. One clean autumn day she and I walked out of school together, and she said she felt like driving up into Westchester to see the leaves. I said impulsively, “Take me,” and she said, “All right, Kauffmann.”
Perhaps twice a month through the year we drove up there and drove roundabout Kensico Dam and parked for a while and talked. And laughed. In the car the world dropped away, everything of our ages and of school. For her birthday I gave her a poem--not of love but of praise. For my birthday she gave me a novel.
And on my birthday I asked another present. We were sitting her car on a wooded road, talking and laughing, which was all we ever did. I asked her to take down her hair. She laughed and said, “Don’t be foolish, Stanley. What for?” “So I can see it,” I said. “It’s foolish,” she laughed again, and took it down. “There. What’s that now?” she asked. But she knew what it was--in the look of it and in the meaning of the act--or she wouldn’t have done it.
Her hair was long and full, and, cloaking her shoulders, it changed her. I thought it was the most intimate thing a girl had yet done for me, though I had slept with two before that.
We laughed and teased some more, and again on other days. One day we were in the car and her hair was down and we were teasing and her face was close. Swiftly she turned her head away. I didn’t kiss her, then or ever. But all at once I knew something I had never known before. I had power. Over a woman. Not just a girl, this was a woman, and I had power. I had never known that. With the two in bed in the country, I had only been the receiver of favors.
I got an almost perfect mark on the next regents’ exam, and I graduated. That summer she came, with her sister, to visit me at the farm where I worked, the last summer I ever worked on a farm. In the fall I went to college and saw her a couple of times. Then I called her one day at home and her sister said she was out. A few days later I got a note from her inviting me to the Alumni Assembly, saying that she was always glad to see her former students, and she wished me well in my studies. It was the perfect teacher’s note in her perfect teacher’s hand.
It was a testament of fear. I was clever enough to be touched, and young enough to be proud. But I liked her so much, I was so grateful, that I never called her again.
Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic for The New Republic.
By Stanley Kauffmann