Skip to Content

Mr. Smith

Mary Norris

St. Thomas More School was in a low, pale brick building with a discreet Celtic cross over the front door and a parking lot for
a playground. This was in Brooklyn, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland. When my family moved to the neighborhood, in 1961, the priests said Mass in the gym. The sermons were often about the building fund, first for a new convent and, later, for a revolutionary new church-in-the-round. At
St. Thomas More they piped the kids out the door with canned music at the end of the day. I heard the Christmas carol “Silver Bells” there
for the first time, and I have always associated it with the suburbs. The nuns at St. Thomas More belonged to the Order of the Incarnate Word
and wore white habits and purple scapulars, like narrow floor-length bibs. Their ranks were supplemented by a few lay teachers. For fourth
grade, we had Mrs. Bushie, whose favorite word was “presume,” as in “I presume you are presumably presuming”; a Mrs. Harmon (forgettable) for fifth; and for seventh grade my first male teacher, and the first man to teach at St. Thomas More, Mr. Richard H. Smith. Mr. Smith was about five feet five, with light-blue eyes and blond hair combed forward into short bangs, like Julius Caesar. He resembled the actor Robert Morse, boyish-looking, with a wide grin. He was from Toledo and drove a gray VW Bug. He told us stories about the year he spent on the University of the Seven Seas, a floating school. The day the ship crossed the international date line, the students declared a ditch day and skipped classes.

I was twelve going on thirteen, a plump, self-conscious misfit whose favorite Beatle was Paul. My best friend was Patsy, and on our days off school we sometimes helped the nuns clean the church sacristy. Anything good was “neat” or “sharp”; traitors were “finks.” Troll dolls and Polish jokes were popular, and sweatshirts with cut-off sleeves. Residents of Parma—not the city in Emilia-Romagna but the next suburb down the road—were laughingstocks. If you were Polish and from Parma, you might as well forget about it.

At school, we called everyone by their last names—Dolcini, O’Malley, Jirgens, Duchoslav, Sabath, Penich, Spring. There was great excitement when Daugenti’s father opened a pizza place in a tiny strip mall on Memphis; we tried to hang out there, like Archie and Veronica at the soda fountain. When we paired off, boys and girls, the only boy left for me was Testa, the ugliest kid in the class. He had spiky black hair, demonic eyes, and wide-spaced teeth, like Pugsley on The Addams Family. Those were
the days of exchanging pictures and signing autograph books, and he wrote me an illiterate love note: “Roses are red vilets are blue so I love
you Stick that in your pipe and smoke it.” I tried to resign myself to him, but when I heard through my friend Irene, the most sophisticated seventh grader in Cuyahoga County, that Testa had told her he was going to “string me along,” I was both heartbroken and relieved.

Mr. Smith sometimes went along with a group of kids to the pizza place. This was his first teaching job, and he was young and idealistic. When he couldn’t help laughing at Jirgens, the troublemaker, but didn’t want to encourage him—it would be like laughing at a toddler for cursing—he would swipe his palm from forehead to chin, and his face would go from splitting with laughter to stone cold sober. He did unexpected things like moving the teacher’s desk to the back of the room, upsetting the universal order. His great innovation to the curriculum was in spelling. We had a workbook with a list of twenty words per lesson, and instead of making us memorize the words every week, Mr. Smith asked us to write a story, using the words in context (properly spelled, of course). Spelling stories were due on Thursday. I was always euphoric on the way to school to hand in my story. I had a precocious grasp on the best thing about writing: having written. Mr. Smith graded the stories overnight, with a U (for Unsatisfactory) or an S (Satisfactory), and on Friday afternoons
we read our work aloud to the class.

James Spring and I emerged as the stars of the readings. He was a brilliant kid, wiry, with bristly hair, a natural performer. His stories were like stand-up comedy routines, and he used them as setups for song-and-dance numbers, once performing several verses of “The Mississippi Mud.” My method was not to let the word list dictate my theme but to write
what I wanted and tuck in the words where I could. Mr. Smith prized originality. One week, Patsy wrote about a group of people who were shipwrecked on an island, and Mr. Smith praised her work as highly original. Apparently, he’d never seen Gilligan’s Island. I adapted “The
Cask of Amontillado.” My father had taken us to see Vincent Price in a cheesy anthology film called An Evening of Edgar Allan Poe, and I did my best to recreate the wine-tasting scene. It got me an S+ “very good.” Mr. Smith’s one criticism was “Scotch is not a wine.”

I wrote a character sketch of my father: how he collected crowbars and cheated on his taxes and how, when it rained, he liked to drive through puddles and splash old ladies on the sidewalk (or so he said). Once, I crammed the spelling words into a poem in defense of ethnic jokes, which
I justified by making fun of my own kind, the Irish. Another time, I thought up a good title, “Mutiny on the Good Ship Lollipop,” and wrote a story to go with it—something about how the candy cane got its stripes. Mr. Smith said it was “pure genius.” My hands shook when I read in front of the class; I introduced a story once by saying I would “shake, rattle, and read.” (“Her hands do shake,” a classmate murmured.) The highlight of my juvenile career was the day I followed Spring, who was like my warm-up
act, and read “The Exercise Club,” about how Dad got us all up early to lead us through the Royal Canadian Air Force physical-fitness plan. S+ “excellent!” The class applauded. Mr. Smith, standing against the side wall with his arms folded across his chest, smiled widely and said, “I think I have two writers.”

One Saturday, when Patsy was on sacristy duty, she saw Smith in his classroom and wanted to talk with him but didn’t have the nerve, so she called me on the phone and asked me to come down. I was surprised that anyone thought I had nerve, so I walked the few blocks to school, where we swanned down the hall past Smith’s door, and he called out, “Mary Jane! Come in! And Pat!”

Outside school, Mr. Smith was just as friendly and open. If he drove past me in his VW Bug, he would wave and shout “Hi!” Once when
he was leaving the parking lot during baseball practice and I was at bat, he called out, “Kill ’em, Mary Jane!” (I struck out.) Over the summer, some friends and I invited him to go with us to an Indians game. The Cleveland Press used to give out free tickets to kids who got straight A’s, to help fill seats at the old Municipal Stadium. We heckled the Chief—a fan who sat in the bleachers pounding a bass drum—but were too young to buy beer and get rowdy. Smith rooted for the home team, of course, but his favorite
team was the Toledo Mud Hens.

When we were promoted to eighth grade, Smith’s new seventh-graders crowded around him in the parking lot at recess. We still craved his attention, too. The nuns were concerned about the way we hung on to Smith, but he was just more fun than they were. There was never the least suggestion of anything improper. As a treat, he took me and some friends to Cedar Point, the amusement park near Sandusky—we went on the roller coaster (I screamed) and swam in Lake Erie fully clothed. It might have been the best day of my life. In my diary, if I wasn’t mooning over Paul McCartney or (during baseball season) Rocky Colavito, I was weighing the merits of various boys in my class as if my future lay with one of them—the mysterious Vish; the reckless Bewley; O’Malley, who played bagpipes; O’Connell, a serious boy, kind, smart, freckled—but that night I swept aside all the boys my age and wrote, “It’s Smith I love!” I could talk to him about anything. I calculated the age difference—I was twelve when we met; he was twenty—and it was narrower than the
one between me and Paul McCartney. “If I don’t grow,” I wrote, “I won’t be taller than him.”

Mr. Smith left St. Thomas More at the end of that school year and moved to Michigan. I went on to high school. I wrote him a few letters, and he may even have written back. Years later—decades, actually—when I had
become a published writer, I occasionally visited Michigan on book tour, and I always thought of Smith. Once, at a library in Ann Arbor, the memory of him inspired me to talk about the spelling stories and how Mr. Smith
had given me my identity as a writer. There was something about the quality of his praise, the way he encouraged whatever bubbled up in me
naturally. It would have been wonderful to have him in the audience. I tracked him down on Facebook: he had a beard and ran a counseling
service for alcoholics and drug addicts. He’d been married but was now divorced.

The next time I went to Michigan was in May of 2018, for a gig at a women’s club in Pontiac. The schedule was rigid, and if I wanted to sell
books, I had to schlep them myself. I was late, through no fault of my own, and had not slept well. I had forgotten to pack any makeup, and I sensed that the club members thought I was unprofessional. “You should show slides,” one of the women advised me afterward. I didn’t sell any books.

I humped my unsold inventory to the car of the Michigan friend who was giving me a ride to the airport, and just as I was buckling myself in I got a call on my cell phone. It was Mr. Smith! I jumped out of the car and made my friend wait while I talked on the phone in the parking lot. It was wonderful to hear his voice. Only I didn’t know what to call him—“Mr. Smith” seemed absurd at this remove, but which of the several versions of his first name did he answer to? Richard? Richie? Dick? Rick? Cheech? I thought of him, fondly, as Smith, but it would be disrespectful to address your mentor by his last name. We talked about the Sisters of the Incarnate Word and the principal of St. Thomas More, Sister Sebastian, snaggle-toothed, with a savage Irish accent, who had hired Smith. He remembered Hot Dog Day and the time Jirgens took some pop without paying for it. “You know you’re stealing from me,” Smith told him. Miraculously, he put the bottles back.

I told Mr. Smith I had hoped to get in touch with him in time to invite him to this ladies’ lunch in Pontiac. Because Detroit was Motor City, I assumed you could get anywhere in Michigan magically by car, but all the major roads were choked by construction, and he did, after all, have to work. He was calling from the office. He had become a counselor because people told him he was good at it—he was good at listening. He joked that if he had attended the lunch he would probably have been looking for a date. I said it was lucky he had missed it. We talked about organizing a reunion of the St. Thomas More, Class of 1966—he remembered everyone, and even had our class picture hanging in his office.

He was about to move, so I didn’t get his address, but now I had his number and I could write him a long letter, pouring out all the affection I had felt for him over the years. Sometimes when I can’t sleep, I remember his method for clearing his mind at night, which he shared with us in seventh grade: he’d let his worries float up, one at a time, and dismiss them until his mind was blank. I still use that method, and I do the trick with the face palm, too. My hands no longer shake when I read in public. And, because of him, Thursday is still my favorite day of the week.

Copyright © 2022 by Mary Norris.
Cover design by Debra Morton Hoyt

Mary Norris was a query proofreader at The New Yorker magazine for twenty-four years. She is the author of Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen and Greek to Me.

Mr. Smith by Mary Norris chapbook cover. Sketch of a Volkswagen Beatle