by Philiss Merion Shanken
My little bitty slip of a grandmother giggled every single time she described her gorgeous eleventh-grade English teacher, Mr. Phillips. Now seventy years later, it was as if teenage Grammy had been caught in a time capsule and was just now emerging from a romantic dream.
Within the crowded classroom, Grammy—actually fifteen-year-old, chunky Gertrude —not the scrunched up old lady we were afraid we’d crush whenever we hugged her —had been assigned a seat that almost hugged the blackboard, with not much space between her desk and the bulletined wall.
In front of the class, Mr. Phillips, frequently leaned against Grammy’s desk. The old lady, well, I mean, the young girl in question, was situated half-way below the tall man and in front of his mid section, his trouser zipper on display directly in front of her eyes. Grammy —her nickname was Gerty back then —studied the forbidden spectacle as if the tines of his fly were braces on crooked teeth.
Sometimes Mr. Phillips rested his chalky fingers on the edge of her desk, to balance himself, while she quietly sighed and tried to control her body’s eruption of goosebumps. Most of the time, young Grammy forced herself to peer fixedly upward into his face, so he wouldn’t catch on that she had been studying the forbidden terrain.
She re-positioned her tabooed gaze toward his full, ruddy lips, and clenched her jaw muscles to camouflage her constant expression of “O”. Gerty worked overtime to not “make eyes at him”.
The original Grammy, that is, young Gerty, constantly ruminated as to why she had been planted in that exact spot in front of her well-built teacher. She had her theories, which she played out immediately before falling asleep. Gerty tittered aloud, her heart fluttering over the image of adorable Mr. Phillips, the Hollywood movie star: Gerty and Mr. Phillips waltz around the dance floor like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Mr. Phillips swoons, then suddenly stops to have a better look at her. He gently lifts her face with his hands and recites the inevitable: You are the most beautiful girl in the world!
No doubt about it: Mr. Phillips had decided her desk should be placed in that location precisely because he was in love with her...
But Gerty was to learn that wishes don’t automatically make dreams come true. This awakening was probably the reason she declined to offer us any follow-up to the story. We never learned anything further about Mr. Phillips...
So, why did Old Grammy repeatedly tell us this story about Young Grammy? Maybe she wanted us to finally acknowledge that she was once a young person —an impossibility in our minds.
More than once, and only after Grandpa died, she related the blushing tale to my brother and me, “Did I ever tell you about my crush on Mr. Phillips, my eleventh-grade teacher?”
“Yes, Grammy, you told us last Saturday.”
“No! It’s been my secret. I never uttered a word to anyone!”
“Sure, Grammy! Whatever you say!”
We had seen her old-time wedding picture when Grammy couldn’t have been much older than the high school girl with the fairy-tale love affair.
“Tell us, Grammy. What happened after Mr. Phillips was no longer your teacher?”
“Oh, nothing happened. I was innocent. Don’t tell my Daddy. He would kill me if he ever heard me say it!”
“But after you married Grandpa, did you daydream about Mr. Phillips?”
“Of course not. I was a good girl.”
Then Grammy’s face turned all shiny and red. For just a moment, we could almost imagine her as young and plump Gerty rather than the shrunken grandmother who sat in the cushioned, worn-out chair by the window.
It was like a time warp but too dissonant for us to fathom, given the wrinkly Grammy we were studying at this very moment.
We didn’t let on one way or another as to whether we believed or doubted her, but each of us, on our own, silently mused over the notion that any part of her account could have been true. We looked at each other, telepathically reading the other one’s eyes.
As if in a conspiracy, we simultaneously spewed forth our verdict: “Nah!”
Fortunately, Grammy didn’t hear our refrain because she had lost her hearing-aids that very morning