Volume 21, Number 119, February/March 2018 Bernice's Secret by Joan M. Baril
Bernice walked like Jerry Lewis. She hunched forward like Groucho Marx. Her eyes, even with the aid of bottle-bottom glasses, lacked depth perception and she bumped into everything, including her fellow students in the halls of North Bay Teachers’ College where I was a student.
But, Bernice’s smile was electric as was her brain and her generosity. lf I or one of my Port Arthur girlfriends were stuck on an assignment connected with our practice teaching, she would drop everything, listen, close her eyes as if in a trance and then, invariably, come up with a brilliant idea sure to impress our supervising teacher. Even though I knew she came from a wealthy family and had a famous brother in the media, and another who was a historian, she flaunted neither money nor kin. In the cafeteria, her head would turn from one person to the next, peering through her glasses, laughing, joking about herself and her awkwardness while, all the time, her face held some sort of light which I think was love. We incorporated her into our group as a good friend, but I believe she genuinely and deeply loved us all.
When I heard that Bernice was doing wonders at her practice teaching and pulling in top marks, I cornered her in the cafeteria and asked her secret.
“I love children,” she said. “I want them to learn. I try to show them my love. I smile at them all the time. I tell them they are the best class I’ve ever had. I say, ‘You are the most wonderful students.’ I always pitch the topic, try to get them excited. I say, ‘You’re going to learn something so interesting today, the great secrets of geography or math, or whatever.’ I say, ‘You will use this knowledge all your life.’ And when I’m talking to them one on one, I always find something to praise, even if it’s some tiny thing. If the supervising teacher goes out of the room, even for a minute, I lather on the praise, projecting my love towards them.”
My roommate, Lois, who was present, was deeply annoyed. “Bizarre stuff,” she termed it later. “Bernice’s formula is just dumb, not to mention unhelpful to the pupils. Students deserve honest feedback. Children shouldn’t be praised for every little thing. They’ll get spoiled. They won’t put forth their best effort. And why should they? As for that weird projecting love thing,” Lois sneered, “it seems to me, well, I hate to say it, but it’s a bit creepy, don’t you think?”
But I was not so sure. I was not doing well in my practice teaching so I was willing to try anything. I switched to Bernice’s technique - and it worked like a magic talisman. But if I ever told anyone about it, I always got the Lois reaction. After that, I shut up and garnered the top marks.
In spite of Bernice’s success in practice teaching, I was afraid she was going to fail her year as I was surely going to fail mine. Our problem was music. Neither of us could sing. She was worse than I. Her singing voice was a hideous croak. I simply could not carry a tune. Failure in one subject meant failure in the entire program and we both knew we were doomed. In January, after the music teacher explained the solo assignment, Bernice sobbed in the washroom. No one was around and I Iet her cry, wanting very much to cry myself. Taking off her glasses, she used a paper towel to swipe the tears streaming from her eyes. “I want to be a teacher with all my heart, Janet. I have never wanted anything so much. I don’t know what I’ll do with my life if I don’t pass this course.”
The music teacher, a Mr. Harding, an ancient gnome-like figure, taught the class to sight-read music. We started with simple melodies but soon moved on to two-part and three-part harmonies. We belted out rounds and action songs as he thumped the piano. Bernice and I stayed at the back of the room, opening our mouths and pretending. But our incognito days were coming to an end. Each teacher trainee had to work up one children’s song from the songbook, and teach it to the class who were to pretend to be elementary school pupils. We signed our name on the calendar at the back of the room. I put myself down for Friday, June 5, the last music class of`the year and Bernice took June 3, the class before mine. It was now January, and even though we had ample time to prepare, we both knew it was hopeless.
I sang my song, “Robin in the Rain”, to my roommate, but Lois just shook her head and looked deeply annoyed. “Your voice has to go up in the middle of the first line, Janet, on the word ‘in’. I don’t understand why you can’t do it. Anybody can.”
She looked, if possible, even more annoyed. “You went too high, Janet.”
“But I went up like you said.”
“Yes, but you went way up. It’s only a little way up.” She demonstrated the correct way and then once again, but this time imitating my highpitched squeak. She forestalled any further comment by turning to her schoolwork, and after a minute, so did I.
But my thoughts were heavy. I have now experienced, I felt, the bitter taste of defeat.
In the college washroom. Bernice growled out her chosen song. “Playmates”, in a steady monotone. I put my head in my hands and heard her crying again. We were both failures and we knew it. Nothing could save us.
On Wednesday, June 3. Bernice stood at the front of the room while we, the class, pretending to be elementary school students, had our songbooks open at “Playmates”. Bernice was sweating as she rasped out the first few lines. Everyone, except me, fell over their desks in fits of giggles.
Mr. Harding’s mouth fell open. “You can’t sing can you, Miss Klein,” he said.
“No, sir,” Bernice said.
“What are you doing here, then, in a teacher training course where teaching music is a key part of the curriculum?”
Bernice just stared at him. She made gasping noises. Perspiration rolled down her cheeks. He waved his hand. “Take your seat, Miss Klein.” She did.
Two days later it was my turn. The night before I’d asked Lois if she would go over “Robin in the Rain” with me a final time; but she shook her head. “I don’t want to hear it any more,” she said. In bed, I stared at the ceiling for hours, unable to sleep, wondering how I could explain all this to my parents.
The next morning, creeping like a snail unwillingly to school, I turned into the front door of the large brick building and slouched toward my locker. Carrying the songbook, with its bookmark set at “Robin in the Rain”, I walked to the music room head down, the condemned prisoner shuffling to the scaffold. I passed a few students scurrying here and there, but surprisingly, the music room was empty even though, according to the big clock above the blackboard, it was only a few minutes before nine. My head felt like a concrete block wobbling at the end of my neck. I put it down on the desk and fell asleep.
When I woke, the school was strangely quiet. I went out into the main hall but the lights were off. I walked along, opening the doors to the classrooms as I went, but each room was vacant. I began to hyperventilate. Obviously, I had slept through Friday and now it was Saturday. It was the only explanation. My unhelpful roommate, Lois, must have let me do it. I went to my locker, the door clanging loudly in the silence, retrieved my jacket and headed outside.
The janitor, Mr. Hershey, was standing in the middle of the lawn beside the flagpole. He looked surprised to see me. “Aren’t you going to the town auditorium?” he said. “The service will be just about over.”
“Ah, ah, ah,” I stammered, unable to think. Finally I said, “What service?”
“The memorial for Mr. Harding. He died in his sleep last night. Didn’t you know? The notice is on the door.”
My legs turned to pillars of cement anchoring me to the spot. I felt my face twitch as I opened and closed my eyes several times. A great empty silence enveloped me. Then, I heard a bird sing. I saw the flag on the flagpole. It was at half mast and f1apping in the breeze. “Mr. Harding, the music teacher? That Mr. Harding?” I said.
“Yes. So sad. I couldn’t believe it myself. I saw him just yesterday. What a loss for us all. A great teacher, one of the best we’ve ever had here. All his students loved him. They threw away the mould when they made Mr. Harding. My thoughts and prayers are with him now.”
“Mine too,” I said.
I walked toward the sidewalk. The sun shone on the grass. In the garden around the flagpole, the tulips were in bud. At the corner, the leaves of the maple tree fluttered in the sharp breeze.
I would go back to the room I shared with Lois. I would go back to bed. When I got up, the world would be different.
And it was. Mr. Harding’s markbook was never found and so everyone in the music class was given a pass including Bernice.
I never forgot Bernice. I credit my many years of successful teaching to Bernice’s Secret, her recipe for being successful in the classroom.