Back in the Day

By Cornelia Read


So I’m hanging out in Carmel, California, where I spent much of my childhood. It’s a little weird to be here. I posted on Facebook the other day that it’s like reliving my teenage ennui, only without the clove cigarettes.

There are parts of this place that I cherish, and some good memories. A lot of shitty ones, too. I achieved escape velocity at age fifteen, when I got a full scholarship to go to my mom’s boarding school in New York, and once there I swore I would never again live on the west coast. That resolution faltered when I was living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with young twins in my mid-Thirties–looking out the window one February morning realizing that I had to find the *fourth* mitten again before I’d have my kids ready for the schoolbus, out in the snow.

Now I’m gearing up to move to New Hampshire for a year, having sworn in 2000 I’d never again live in New England, or anyplace where that fucking white stuff falls out of the sky. Famous semi-last words, I guess, and karma’s a bitch and all that.

But the coolest thing about being here so far has been the person chosen to introduce me when I gave a talk to the local chapter of the California Writers Club a couple of weeks ago: Mrs. Boys, my second grade teacher from Carmel River School.


(Mrs. Boys in center… I’m on the right in the paisley minidress)

I hadn’t seen her since the early Seventies, and she is still eminently cool and wonderful. She’s also the first person who ever got me writing, and encouraged me to keep going.

I used the tall binder paper (instead of the horizontal beige stuff with room for a picture on top) for the first time in her class, back in 1970–I wrote a little essay on why I was pissed off about the treatment of Angela Davis, and the Christmas carpet bombings in Vietnam. I wrote my first poetry at her urging, and one of my haiku written then was the first piece of work I ever had published.

I owe this woman a great deal, and have a tremendous number of fond memories of what we did in her class that year.

What was even cooler than having her as a surprise speaker that evening was that she brought her scrapbook from that school year, and let me go through it. When I said I’d love to come over someday and scan some of the pictures, she pulled another small scrapbook out of her bag and handed it to me–she’d already made copies of all the pictures I appeared in, which totally made me cry for happy.

I remembered so much of what she did with us that year… especially the field trips. She had an old Frito-Lay steptruck with shag rug in the back, and she’d just load the entire class into the back of it and take us on the road. (“Yeah,” she said at dinner the other night, “imagine trying THAT with a class of twenty-odd kids today… no seatbelts.”)

We went hiking up Pico Blanco in Big Sur, because this cement company wanted to chop it up for the limestone and we needed to know why that was totally evil:


We went down to the Carmel Library, on Ocean Avenue, and got our pictures in the paper:



She let us run wild on the beach, even in cowboy boots:


But the best trips of all were when she loaded us all up and took us out into the world “to be writers.”



We’d go to a park, or somewhere else that was beautiful, and just sit outside and think and write our little heads off–Mrs. Boys wanted us to know that that was all it took to be a writer, just putting the words on the paper, and doing the best you could with them.

I learned a lot of other cool stuff that year, like how to tie-dye, and folk dance:


(if not keep both kneesocks up at the same time.) We learned a Russian folk song so we’d know what to sing “come the revolution,” we described our dreams on a tape recorder (“I knew there was something different about Cornelia the first time we tried that,” said Mrs. Boys during her introduction. “All the other kids in the class fit their collective dreams onto a single thirty-minute cassette. Cornelia needed a thirty-minute tape all to herself.” [in my defense, it was a really cool dream where I worked with a team of kids from every country in the world to build a rocket ship out of the flags of each of our countries, all pasted together, and then we went to Mars where the skies were orange and the plants were see-through in different colors and there was this thing that looked like a cobalt-blue kickball, only when I kicked it it turned into a hedgehog and ran away… and, well, you get the idea. Ahem.])

I learned how to play the Marine Corps Hymn on a soprano recorder, and plant a tree for Earth Day:



And cut across the horse pasture behind school to get to the river:



But the most important thing I learned was how to believe I was a writer, from the get-go:



And that’s pretty damn cool–even if it’s gotten a little trickier now that I know I have to use quotation marks and stuff.


Thank you, Mrs. Boys. You are awesome.

‘Ratis, who’s the teacher you owe the most, and what did they allow you to learn about yourself?


19 thoughts on “Back in the Day

  1. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Cornelia

    What a fabulous piece – love those photos, too.

    If only I’d had a teacher like Mrs Boys, instead of ones who tried their damndest to crush the last ounce of creative spirit out of me, I might have managed to stay on in school past the age of twelve.

    For me, escape velocity was reached early ;-]

  2. karen from mentor

    Mrs. Ruth Sklenar for me Cornelia.
    My fourth grade teacher. She tried to skip me to sixth grade but when that wouldn’t fly (what! you’d outshine your brother!) she let me tutor second graders, taught me the dewey decimal system, let me write anything I wanted and read everything regardless of "age guidelines" and really really BELIEVED in me….

    I loved her then, love her now….

    oh crap, now I’ve got to go change one of my security questions at my bank’s website….welll, it was totally worth it.
    and on two personal notes…a) god you were a cute kid….and b) I’ve had the hedgehog dream, I’ve had the hedgehog dream !….only mine was purple.
    hugs to you. you sound like you’re settling in…and just think…when the white stuff comes down you can make snow angels and snowmen like Calvin of Calvin and Hobbs. I Love Calvin’s snowmen!
    Karen :0)

  3. Sara J. Henry

    Wow, I’m jealous. Can’t remember ever getting any encouragement from any teacher.

    For me it was a family friend called Bob Landy (his real first name was Fabaus) – when I was 20 he suggested I write some columns about bicycling, which I was mad about at the time, and marched me into a newspaper to meet with an editor he knew. The editor read them, said "Yes, I’ll buy them," and at that moment my life changed.

    Besides realizing I could make money with my writing, I learned two immensely valuable things that day: you don’t always have to follow the rules, and sometimes you have to make your own opportunities.

  4. JD Rhoades

    You’re right she’d never get away with any of that stuff now. The Russian folk song alone would have parents on the school lawn with torches and pitchforks.

    I still remember Miss Hall from eighth grade. Mean, sarcastic little woman, who I thought at the time was a raging bitch. But in retrospect I realized that she was only that way when she thought you weren’t using your brain or when you were giving less than your best effort. She terrified me out of mediocrity.

  5. Pari

    I loved this piece, Cornelia. Just beautiful.

    I had many crappy teachers and many good ones. Thing definitely were lousy through elementary school which is why I ditched two weeks in the fifth grade; I was just so fed up.

    But the following year I got the headmaster of the new small private school– all girls — my parents paid through the nose to have me attend. I remember writing my first long history paper (5 pages) on "Does history repeat itself?" And I got a C.

    I went to Rev. Saunders and told him the grade wasn’t fair, that if ________ had written it, he would’ve given her an A.

    He replied, "You’re right, Pari. If _______ had written that paper, I would’ve given her an A. But, you see, YOU wrote it and you didn’t try. I’m not going to give you an A until you do A work — for you."

    That really pissed me off — but it’s also when I started to learn how actually work my brain in academe.

  6. Pari

    Pardon all the typos in the above post. I’m typing with a broken pinkie finger and it’s totally discombobulated my balance on the keyboard.

    Plus, I need coffee.

  7. Louise Ure

    Lovely to see you here, Ms. C. Hope things are going well in Carmel.

    I envy you your Mrs. Boys. Not only for her teaching, but for her incredible photography! My own teacher memories are of another sort. Like Miss Kahlil, who told me she thought I’d "do well in retail."

    Bonus: Doing my morning crossword puzzle, how pleased I was to see "38 Down. Four letters. Mystery novelist Gerritsen." Yeah! Tess, you’re a national puzzler!

  8. Cornelia Read

    Zoe, I’m so sorry your teachers were such buttheads, but glad you escaped before they’d managed to crush you completely. You are amazing!

    Karen, Mrs. Sklenar sounds like a truly fine person, and I’m so glad you had her in your life. I will try to think of Calvin the next time I’m stuck in that fucking white stuff… and go hedgehog dreamers!

    Sara, Bob Landy was a very fine friend indeed, what a wonderful thing he did–and good for you for taking on that challenge.

    Dusty, your Miss Hall sounds like a teacher I had in sixth grade–Miss Wille Belle Mason. She was about ninety bazillion years old and would yell at us in Latin, even though she was our math teacher. Tiny little woman, originally from Natchez. Terrifying at the time, awe-inspriing in retrospect.

    Pari, that’s a great story, and your poor pinkie! Thank you for typing at all, and I hope you’re having some coffee right now. I haven’t had mine yet, and didn’t notice any typos at all. Hope the finger heals fast….

    Louise, thank you, and I’m hating on Mrs. Kahlil, and YEA TESS!!!

  9. gayle

    It’s such a cliche, but my parents were my best teachers. I credit my mother with my love of reading. She was in school herself, to become a teacher, while I was a struggling reader. She took me to the library daily where she picked out easy books that she knew I would like. If you are struggling to read, it won’t be fun and you won’t do it. But if you can breeze through 10 books a day, your fluency and confidence soar. I’m sure as that summer went on, she sneakily selected books that slowly increased in difficulty. This was also the year that the library was having a book reading contest for kids. If was a sight to see my mother arguing with the librarian that yes, my books should count even if the were "baby books". ( The term the librarian used.) My mother created the voracious reader that I am today. And books were the one thing that my parents didn’t say no to. Clothes, toys, yes, but I always got the book that I wanted.

    While not a teacher, my father sat with me through all of my school years at the kitchen table helping me with math. Many tears were shed at I pleaded with with to just tell mw how to get the answer instead of him insisting that I understand the reasoning for the answer. He never lost his patience or yelled.

    Both having a love of reading and understanding how to get the answer are part of what I use in my own teaching today.

  10. Jake Nantz

    Mary W. White was my college advisor (after she helped me escape my previous advisor, as he and I had had a few disagreements, and looking back they were probably more my fault than his…sorry Mr. Joslin). She taught me to believe in myself, and she taught me that I could do what I wanted to…like really do it. Oh, and she taught me that I tried too hard to kill all of my main characters, and if I wanted to torture them, there were much longer and more painful ways to do it.

  11. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    I want that teacher, and I want her NOW!
    I actually did have a wonderful elementary school experience – it was in a funky little hippie school in Albuquerque called Manzano Day School. I got to make Super 8 movies for school assignments. It was similar to the experience you had, Cornelia. Although we didn’t have a Big Sur to traipse around. God, I would’ve loved that. But really, I’ll take it now, anytime. Ready to go. Anytime now….

  12. Cornelia Read

    Gayle, I’m vicariously loving both your parents. And I sure could have used your dad’s help with the math at my kitchen table, too. How wonderful!

    Jake, Mary W. White sounds fabulous, and I too have teachers and professors like your Mr. Joslin whom I realize I didn’t like because I was an idiot at the time.

    Stephen, Big Sur awaits… and I’m glad to know you went to a funky little hippie school too.

  13. toni mcgee causey

    For me, it was Mrs. Ross. She always told me I could write. She also let me commandeer a corner of her library to build a dark room. (I had conned the Yearbook supplier into providing us with the supplies and the enlargers. I was 15.) When I’d been out of school five years, I saw her at a party a friend threw and she fussed at me for not trying to get published. I told her I wasn’t sure how, and she sat me down and went over how to write for the newspaper. I followed her instructions and sold my first piece a couple of weeks later. I’m not sure I would have tried, if she hadn’t insisted.

  14. NS Foster

    I had two wonderful teachers who have stayed with me even if I didn’t keep in touch.

    One was my OAC (that’s grade 13 to you non-Ontarians) teacher. I subbed half of a novel I was working on as my final project. He promptly asked to see the rest of it and met up with me after his summer school classes. He’d read the whole thing overnight and actually had wonderful suggestions. At the time it had just meant so much to have someone else take my work seriously like that.

    The second was not a teacher, actually, but a TA in first year university. Again, I subbed a short story for my final project and he wrote back saying it was "The most mature story I read all year." Those words will stay with me forever, I think. They certainly helped when I was rejected from the Creative Writing program the following year!

    Little things, but they’re worth their weight in gold. Good topic, Cornelia!

  15. Eika

    Ms.- not Mrs, not Miss- Coskren.

    Grade 3. First class where I had to actually WRITE, dangit, and write I did. Daily journal entries right after recess on anything we pleased.

    She made an impression on me in other ways- throwing a ruler across the room on a lovely spring day for attention, the fish-mask and scuba-gear she wore April 1st- but the writing has to be the most important bit of it (and I hated every second. My hand cramped up, I didn’t have anything to say, it was boring…)


    And the class motto. Say the pledge of allegiance, do an about face, salute the motto, and go, "Pretty good is not good enough!". ‘Pretty good’ is currently my code for ‘Crud. This sucks,’ but no one else has to know that.

  16. Jeff Abbott

    Those braids, Cornelia–you’re like the cooler Cindy Brady.

    Best teacher: a woman who taught 2nd grade in a tiny East Texas town for 33 years. The school was so poor that for years there was only one easel-sized reading primer for the whole class–it was kept up on an easel, and the whole class would read along together as the teacher used her pointer to move along each word. When this teacher died, basically the whole town shut down for her funeral (only the bank and post office stayed open.) There were nearly a thousand people at the service: 700 in the church and 300 outside. When the minister asked how many people there she had taught to read, nearly every hand went up. Mine too. She taught me to read, out of that oversized book, when my parents left me with her for a week. I was only 4. I wasn’t smart, she was just an extraordinary teacher.

    She was my grandmother, and I am named for her.

  17. Fran

    I just adore that first picture!

    My teacher was Mrs. Himes, and it’s not so much that she encouraged writing, but that she strongly encouraged reading, anything and everything.

    And my mom, who also taught and wouldn’t let me do better than my best, but just glowed when I got it right.

    Someday I hope someone on a blog like this will kindly remember me as a cool teacher who inspired. Hey, ya gotta have dreams, right?

  18. Cornelia Read

    Toni, I love that you commandeered your own corner of the library, and am so happy you had someone who backed you up to do it. Way cool!

    NS, I completely agree that it’s those little things that are worth their weight in gold. They keep us going when we most need some support, even years later.

    Eika, yea MS. Coskren!!

    Jeff, you just mad me get a little teary-eyed with that story.

    Fran, you rock double!!

  19. Dory Adams

    I loved this post and especially enjoyed seeing the photographs. There is no one teacher who stands out for me, but I had a wonderful experience at a small rural school in central Pennsylvania where we had two grades per classroom in the early 1960s. I attended grades 1-4 before the school was closed and we were bused to the town school. Our rural school offered more to nurture creativity and imagination in students than the town school ever did.


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