Miss Cagney, our petite third-grade teacher at Gilmore School, introduced her feisty fledglings to the exciting world of drama. Maybe having the surname of a famous screen actor inspired her to delve into staged dialogues, recitation, and ultimately, a play later in the school year.
We, the motley crew of public-schoolers, representing every economic and social class of the little northern suburb of Buffalo, could aspire to greatness as the star of a lesser-known drama, or one popularized in teacher curriculum handbooks.
Being the star for an afternoon and a night always elicited emotion from my classmates and me. We knew to a childish degree the spectacular opportunities of Ed Sullivan’s talented guests and the dimensions of Twilight Zone characters traveling in and out of time, unraveling the minds of ordinary people, leaving chills running up our spines. Television in the 1950s made acting look easy, now in retrospect. It appeared to be fairly rote like our public school education, both in black and white and extremely low contrast.
In the long rows of cold metal-legged desks with scratched wooden tops that opened their mouths to reveal reams of crumpled homework papers and musty textbooks filled with wandering germs, we slaved away at reading workbooks. The mind-numbing exercises stared at us and we silently erased our guesses, waiting for lunch to spell its way onto the page. Bologna sandwich with ketchup on Wonder Bread. And Oreo cookies, always with “I” followed by an “E” even in the singular. If not lunch as a diversion, hopefully a fire drill, where we dropped everything and lined up solemnly at the back of the cavernous classroom, exiting through wide halls, all of us headed in the same direction, down the dull gray stairs, and out to the sidewalks shaded by elms and maples. Our teachers walked in goosesteps with black attendance books under their arms, as focused as retired military generals — but all female. There out in nature among hundreds of other children whose eyes were glazed over from pages of wordy worksheets, factoids, maps, and strict discipline, we could breathe. We could shake out our weariness that almost visibly assumed physical substance in striped pajamas and frolicked in the dappled shade on the spacious school lawn.
With my imagination safely back inside my head, I longed for the segment of the day which opened like an orange and splattered droplets of literary juice on me. Miss Cagney fingered through her neatly standing books, not textbooks, between two brass bookends of lions with monstrous manes and clawed paws, choosing her favorite classics, myths, fairy tales, fables, and American tall tales. Fixated on her voice, I closed my eyes and blocked out the view of the multipaned windows in the long wall next to our desks, and the kids picking their noses and eating the output.
From “Babe the Blue Ox,” Miss Cagney began: “Well, one winter it was so cold that all the geese flew backward and all the fish moved south and even the snow turned blue. Late at night, it got so frigid that all spoken words froze solid afore they could be heard. People had to wait until sunup to find out what folks were talking about the night before.”
Pure magic! Miss Cagney performed a splendid trick by reading this delightful Minnesotan tale. I pictured the words frozen in space, just balloons of breath with syllables to keep them afloat and a consonant or two to help as ballasts when touching down on earth the next day. Belly laughs around me while my classmates rolled long curls of hair on their fingertips or picked at scabs and hangnails.
Miss Cagney continued: “Whenever he got an itch, Babe the Blue Ox had to find a cliff to rub against, ’cause whenever he tried to rub against a tree it fell over and begged for mercy.” Boys wanting to imitate this scene of the tale leaned against invisible tree trunks to their right or left, and fell from their chairs in a clatter, but quickly returned to their upright positions without a dirty look or a missed beat in the recitation. What would Babe do next? We, the well-trained readers, knew to predict further action in a story. Miss Cagney had us wrapped around her teacher’s pointer finger without the least bit of coercion or even a commercial break like during our favorite evening TV programs. We were her mute puppets until a choral reading or dramatic recitation.
Since the silly boys were titillated by Babe rubbing against a tree to relieve an itch, the girls swooned over Miss Cagney’s recitation of Carl Sandburg’s “Fog” and begged to be cats. Miss Cagney pulled them round her as if her kinder, and groomed them with her lyric tongue. “The fog comes on little cat feet.” They repeated the line in pianoforte, building dynamics gradually. “The fog comes on little cat feet. The fog comes on little cat feet.” Each alliterative “T” traced with the tongue and tipped tightly against the roof of the mouth in perfect unison. “It sits looking over harbor and city.” Half the girls recited it softly and the other half repeated with a gradual increase in pitch. Theresa Latchut, one of my neighborhood playmates, suggested the girls rest on their knees with their arms dangling in front as a feline gesture while reciting the lines. All of us pussycats agreed and performed for the boys, the blue oxen with itchy rumps.
As the time drew near for a longer performance that would magnify our growing ability with the written word and memorization, Miss Cagney had us sample fables. One student became the narrator, recounting the details of the scenes, while the better readers memorized the lines of the animals in situations rife with conflict. The hare and the tortoise competed in their historic race right around our classroom, from the cloakroom in the back (where there were never any cloaks), along the huge blackboards on the right side of the room under Lincoln and Washington’s stoic portraits, up to the front with Miss Cagney’s long, oak desk with refined, molded edges. We forest animals, from our hutches, holes, and classroom nests, observed our classmates in an Aesop’s readers’ theater. Soon, Miss Cagney realized that a tailor-made play fine-tuned for her gaggle of giggling third graders would best showcase their developing talents.
In early spring, Miss Cagney announced that she had found a short play to be produced in the classroom, complete with costumes and basic scenery, far Off Broadway. Her budding thespians cheered and clapped as if a snow day had been proclaimed midweek, midwinter. The ball players, non-thespians mostly in attitude, sat with long faces and anticipated being the stagehands who moved desks and chairs, lugged cardboard and 2x4 scenery, or “boyed” the light switches and emitted simple classroom sound effects per cue. The auditions meant reading short sections of the play and being approved by Miss Cagney before receiving the most appropriate parts in the play. I have forgotten the name of the play some 50 years later, but recall the gender shift with one of the major characters called “Father Forest.”
Barry Singo, a handsome blond, blue-eyed boy who lived a block away, had garnered the part of Father Forest. As rehearsals proceeded over days, Barry lacked the paternal luster and the diction to be a persuasive actor. His 10 lines became a mumbo-jumble. A call went out from Miss Cagney for an understudy who could review the lines and step in without delay. I substituted for Father Forest in one rehearsal because of my height and facility with memorization. Director Cagney chose me from among the understudies. However, in the gender-conscious and role-specific days of the 1950s, I could not play a male. Making a Shakespearean decision right out of “Twelfth Night,” Miss Cagney modified the part for “Mother Forest.” She also revolutionized classroom dramatizations for years to come at the school.
As the performance dates hit the school calendar in the corridor, the costume design and scenery became the primary discussion in the classroom. Keeping in mind our public school budget, post-Sputnik days, the operative words were simplicity and nuance. Simplicity meant really simple and nuance meant minimalism. I wore brown corduroy pants suggesting a tree trunk and my mother purchased an emerald green turtleneck over which I donned a green crepe-paper cape. Mother Forest waved her crinkly boughs and delivered her lines with a deeper and clearer voice than most of her female classmates, capturing the woodland atmosphere with maternal aplomb. “It is in these woods that you will learn the beauty of nature.” The words didn’t freeze like in “Babe the Blue Ox,” waiting for tomorrow’s melt. They catapulted throughout the classroom and bloomed over our heads, if only for a moment.
Marcia Mitrowski, a private tutor, lives in Sag Harbor.