From the Relief Society Magazine, October 1961 –
Commencement for Miss Rowse
By Mabel Harmer
Lennie Rowse smiled faintly as she faced her advisory class of English 14. If her lips trembled slightly and there was a mist in her eyes, she hoped it would go unnoticed. Teen-age boys and girls couldn’t be expected to have much understanding or sympathy for the feelings of a schoolteacher who was meeting her class for the last time. The last time, not only for this year, but for all succeeding years. In another month Lennie would be sixty-five.
She noticed Slim Weller casting a look of veiled admiration at the blond curly head of Allie Speakman. Slim must also be among the very few who were sorry that it was the end of high school days. Now he would no longer have the privilege of worshipping the object of his affections even from across a classroom.
She glanced at Miriam Ellsworth – thirty pounds overweight and probably dateless even for the commencement dance. Lennie, who could count the dates of her own girlhood on her fingers, felt a pang of sympathy for the luckless girl.
In the seat behind her was brilliant and unpredictable Shelby Johns, his dark eyes moody, his hair ruffled. Tomorrow, at his father’s insistence, he would enter the family hardware business, turning down a scholarship at State University.
What could she say in her final ten minute talk that would help them to solve some of these problems? that would help others, whose problems were their own secrets? Would they even listen to anything she might say, in their eagerness to escape from the schoolroom to the freedom and gladness of a June day?
She had to try – as she had tried on the last day of every year when she had stood before her graduating class for the final goodbyes.
She gave them – as she had done with some variations in the past – a bit of philosophy she had gleaned in the years of her teaching. How much of it was her own and how much she had learned from others she didn’t quite know by now.
“Young people,” she began, “you have now come to one of the most important crossroads of your entire life. The course you take after you leave here will largely determine what your future will be. Never be satisfied with the middle road. Strive always for the high. Let your imagination run away with you and then follow – if it is good.”
She paused for an instant. Pete Wilson was drumming softly on his desk and looking out of the window. Others seemed to be listening with varying degrees of politeness and interest, knowing that the talk couldn’t last too long. No doubt one or two were saying to themselves, “All right, Miss Mouse … let’s get out of here. School’s over.”
It had been inevitable, she knew, that the name Rowse would become Mouse, although she had actually heard it only once – when she came unexpectedly upon three boys whom she had just failed.
The name went too well with her appearance to be passed by – her gray hair pulled back into a bun and her usual sober clothing. She didn’t resent it. It was part of the ups and downs of teaching. She would accept that, or any other part of the job, if she could just stay on. So far, she had hardly allowed herself to think of what the empty days ahead might mean.
She went on, “Each one of you has possibilities that can lift you to heights beyond which you may only dream. Never for one minute let the idea creep in that you don’t count for much. You can count for a lot, if you will just believe in yourself. Remember that you, and you alone, are responsible for what you do with your life. You can mold and shape it any way you desire by your own will.”
Shelby was looking at her almost resentfully as if to say, “What do you know about it? What would you do with a dad like mine? Talk is cheap and easy.”
All right, she would tell him. “A good life, a useful life – happiness – none of these is the result of luck. Men do not drift into high places by chance. The average successful citizen who has made a good job of himself has looked at life as his opportunity.”’
She paused again and smiled at them.”That’s all, boys and girls. You are free to go now. You are free to do anything you wish.”
She opened her desk and had started to clear it out when Etta Froisland, one of the younger English teachers, came in.
“Well, Lennie,” she said, perching on top of a student desk, “the grind is over for a few months. Over for good for lucky you. By the way, do you know if anyone has spoken for this room? I’d like to have it, if I may.”
Lennie’s throat became foolishly and unaccountably tight. She couldn’t help wishing that Etta had waited just a little longer.
“It hasn’t been assigned – as far as I know,” Lennie tried to answer naturally. “It really is a very pleasant and comfortable room, here on the east side. It doesn’t get hot in autumn and late spring so that the students grow drowsy and restless.”
“Then I need it as much, or more, than anyone. I’ll ask Hirsch right away.” She walked over to the window and looked out on the lawn where students sat about in groups, talking and signing their yearbooks. “Have you made any plans for the summer?” she went on.
Lennie shook her head. “No, not especially. I haven’t thought much about it yet. I’ll putter in the garden some. My rosebushes need spraying right this day. I’ll do a lot of reading and visit my sisters in Boulder for a week or so.”
“It sounds lovely and restful,” said Etta, turning again from the window. “I have to go to summer school – as usual. There isn’t even a week’s grace in between. Well, I’ll see you at the reception tonight.”
“Yes,” Lennie answered indifferently, at Etta’s retreating back.
The idea of the reception brought no great amount of joyous anticipation. It was the annual affair given by the board of education for retiring teachers. There were half a dozen this year, some happy at the release from a lifetime spent in the schoolroom, others, no doubt, like herself, a bit fearful and bewildered at being suddenly cut loose from all association with young people.
She bent over her desk again and looked up as another visitor entered. This one was a stranger – a very distinguished looking gentleman, hatless, and with a shock of white hair. She stood up uncertainly in response to his very warm smile.
There was a certain look of familiarity about him. She must have seen his picture in the newspapers sometime recently. To her utter surprise – almost consternation – he bent down and kissed her cheek.
“Pinky – Elmer Hughes!” she exclaimed. “Why, I just can’t believe it.”
“Because my red hair has turned white,” he laughed. “It’s quite an improvement – don’t you think?”
“I’m not sure,” she countered, struggling to regain her composure. “I rather liked the looks of that red-headed rascal who kept my class in something of a turmoil.”
“There must have been an appeal of some kind or you would never have bothered with me as long and hard as you did. You made rather a good job of it, you know.”
He sat down on a seat in front of the first desk as Lennie sank down into her desk chair.
“I’m afraid that I can’t claim very much credit,” she said, “or else a hundred other boys would also have become college presidents. You’re here to give the address to the graduates at the university, of course. I’ve been looking forward to hearing it.”
“Good. I hope that I shan’t disappoint you. To make sure that you hear me, I’ve come to ask a favor.”
“A favor – of me?” Lennie looked puzzled.
“Yes. There’s a banquet before the exercises. My wife couldn’t make the trip. She isn’t very well. I’d like you to accompany me.”
From Lennie’s expression he might just as well have suggested a trip to China. “Oh, but I couldn’t,” she gasped. “I couldn’t possibly.”
“Why not?” he smiled.
“The Governor will be there. And all the board of regents. I–why, I’d be awfully out of place,”Lennie answered in genuine distress.
“Nonsense. Why would you? You’re as smart as any of them. Smarter than some. You’ve no idea how, or why some people get appointed on a board of regents. At least, that’s been my experience.”
“But surely there is someone else who would be more suitable.” Lennie was almost pleading. “Someone who has, well – at least a degree of glamour. Someone who …” she paused, wondering if he remembered that at times she had been rather fittingly referred to as “Miss Mouse.”
“There isn’t another soul,” he said with distinct finality. “It has to be you, or I’ll have to slip in there alone and have no one to talk with that I care a pin about. Besides, I have to find out whatever became of June Edwards and some of the rest of them. I’ll call for you at six-thirty. Do you still live over on Linden Street?”
“Yes, I’m still in the same little old house. It’s been over forty years now. I’m retiring from teaching this year. Maybe I’ll get around to doing more with the place. I guess I’ll manage to keep busy.”
If she didn’t sound entirely convincing, he didn’t seem to notice. “There’ll be no question of that with you,” he nodded. “I’ll wander around the halls a bit and then I’ll be off. You can’t imagine how I’ve looked forward to coming back here.”
He left and Lennie sat staring ahead. What in the world had she been thinking of? The very idea of promising to go to that banquet. Well, she’d done it now. She’d have to get a nice hair-do and buy a new dress. She couldn’t let Pinky down. Dr. Hughes, that is. He didn’t really seem to be the same boy at all. It didn’t seem as if any of this could be really happening.
Lennie gathered up the rest of her things quickly now – there was no more dawdling, and fled from the school building without one single backward, nostalgic glance.
At home she called the beauty shop for an appointment and then left for town. What kind of a dress should she buy? She really hadn’t the least idea. It must not be too fancy. That wouldn’t do at all. But it must be smart enough so that Dr. Hughes wouldn’t be embarrassed by her appearance.
She went to the Ripley department store where an old friend, Rose Matheson, was a saleslady. “I want something very special,” she said. “Not too extreme, of course, but smart and good looking. For once, the price is no object. Just see if you can’t transform me into a moth that is first cousin to a butterfly.”
“That will be a pleasure – and not nearly so hard as you seem to think,” smiled Rose. “It’s for the reception I suppose?”
“Yes – and for later wear, too,” replied Lennie.
They finally decided upon a navy blue print which seemed just gay enough for any occasion.
At the beauty shop Lennie agreed to a faint blue rinse for her gray hair, and a manicure.
She hardly knew herself when she was dressed for the reception. She hoped that the other teachers wouldn’t be too startled by her changed appearance.
The affair turned out to be very pleasant. Several of her fellow teachers complimented her on her lovely dress, and the superintendent gravely remarked, “I’m not at all sure that your retirement is in order, Miss Rowse. I think perhaps that we had better have another look at your birth certificate.”
She went home excited, happy, and quite confidant. But on the next day that confidence waned steadily. A dozen times she thought of phoning Elmer and telling him that she couldn’t go. But she never did. At six o’clock she was dressed in the new blue print and ready to go.
He drove up in an elegant, bright green car. At any rate, she thought, that was typical of the Pinky she used to know. He was always sure to have the brightest and best of everything.
The banquet was in the Pioneer Room of the Union Building. There they were greeted by President Adamson and his wife. If they were surprised to see Lennie, they gave no indication. Both of them were most cordial.
She knew some of the regents and their wives also. In fact, a couple of them had been former students. She had never met the Governor and wondered how Elmer would explain her presence. He said quite simply and naturally, “Miss Rowse, Governor Larkin. An old friend of mine here in Rockport.”
At dinner he entertained her with stories of his school and told her about his two boys, one an educator like himself and the other a successful lawyer.
Altogether, he put her so entirely at ease that she felt as if she had never enjoyed any occasion so much in all of her life. In fact, there had never been any occasion that could compare with this one. Once she looked down the long table and told herself, “Yes, it’s you, Lennie Rowse. Sitting down to a commencement banquet with the Governor and the President of the university and the guest speaker.”
Later they went on to the Field House where the exercises were to be held. Dr. Hughes, of course, had to walk in the procession but he gave her a ticket to the reserved seat section and said, “I’ll meet you there afterwards.”
The exercises started with the band playing the march. Lennie had been many times before. In fact, she usually came to see which of her former students were being graduated, what were their chosen fields and who, if any, were receiving honors. Always there had been someone to make her proud and happy. Never before had she been so thrilled as she was tonight.
She waited eagerly for Elmer’s address. He began with reminiscences of his school life in the home town. Then he said, “When I came to one of the crossroads of my school life – graduation from high school – I was sorely tempted to give up all thoughts of any further education and take up flying. Nothing mattered so much at the time as that I should take a plane up into the wide blue yonder. But a wise teacher said to me, “You can take the middle road and be satisfied with mediocrity, if you wish. You may even find an easy road to security. Or you may find new fields to conquer. The choice is entirely up to you.’”
Lennie straightened up with a jolt. Why, he was using her old commencement talk. The one she had given to each graduating class for the past four decades. But there was a difference. He seemed to be directing it right at her.
Was she indeed at a crossroads and about to settle down – maybe slump was a better word – into mediocrity? Indeed, she was. All these years she had been advising others. Now it had come home.
Mediocrity indeed! most certainly she would not. Gardening and housework were all well enough for anyone who was too old for anything less. But not for her. She’d start to learn Russian. Maybe she’d take a trip to Alaska. She’d do volunteer work for the less fortunate.
Churchill hadn’t quit public life until he was nearly eighty-five. twenty years older than she. And look at Grandma Moses! Commencement was ahead. Commencement for Miss Rowse.