This is a fiction I wrote several years ago for a book idea that I didn’t finish. I just remembered it. Here, read it.
One of the people who had a profound influence on my early development as a word taster was my grade two teacher, Miss Knirps. It was not quite that she had a word taster’s love for language and for the flavours of words. Oh, she loved certain words and ways of saying things, but she always seemed to approach words as though they were bees, useful for honey but capable of stinging you at any moment.
Miss Knirps of course seemed impossibly old, but I believe she was about 27 at the time. She was prim and pretty in a very tidy way. She was also very concerned with decorum. She wanted, I think, for all the children of the world to spontaneously join in a circle to sing decent songs about pleasant things. She was a naïve romantic at heart, her world view evidently shaped by too many Barbara Cartland novels. But she must have had a darker, funkier side to her, kept very far apart from her classroom life, because the songs she would recite to us, or have us recite, or even sometimes sing, were lively, popular songs from the current hit parade… bowdlerized. Songs from groups like The Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan.
I remember her sitting and reading to us in that exaggerated intonation and sing-songy voice that teachers of small children can have: “Old black water, keep on rolling. Mississippi moon, won’t you keep on shining on me? Keep on shining your light; you’re going to make everything all right. And I don’t have any worries, for I am not in a hurry at all. I would like to hear some happy Dixieland; pretty lady, please take me by the hand.” She looked at us with a very proper smile of the sort intended for those of tiny brain. “And the lady would take him by the hand and say, ‘I shall dance with you, good sir, all day long.’”
Miss Knirps folded the piece of foolscap she had written her lyrics on. One of the girls – Shelly Priest, in whom one could see the spark of a Knirps-in-training – raised her hand and said, “And then what would they do?”
Miss Knirps got a dreamy look in her eye. “They would have to part ways, of course, as the sun came close to the evening. But he would give her his calling card, and he would say –” she produced another sheet of foolscap and unfolded it carefully like a blintz or a diaper – “Missy, don’t lose my name; you don’t want to dance with anyone else. Send it off in a letter to yourself! Missy, don’t lose my name, for it is the one you will own. You will use it when we are together and have a home.” (We didn’t know at the time that Miss Knirps – Melissa Knirps – was called “Missy” by many of her friends.)
Then she taught us that chorus to a rather stiffly simplified version of the music – the refrain from Steely Dan’s “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” of course. I have to say that, stripped of its louche jazzy tone, that tune is as stiff as an old dry washcloth. But we didn’t know any better. We sang it together.
We sang it a few times through, in fact, so that some of us could actually remember it when we got home. Joey McTavish was singing it around his house when his teenage sister Janis heard him, did a spit take with her Coke, and fell about the place in a paroxysm of laughter for more than ten solid minutes. Then she pulled out Pretzel Logic and played it for Joey.
Joey’s eyes, so I’m told, were the size of dinner plates by the end of the song. Naturally, she played it again, and sang along. And for good measure she played him a the rest of the record too. And when she asked him if Miss Knirps had taught them anything else, Joey’s muddled recollections ultimately allowed her to sort out enough to pull out the Doobie Brothers and play “Black Water.”
When show and tell came the next day, Joey had a look on his face like he had a unicorn with side-mounted machine guns in his bag. When his turn came, he toodled over to the record player, which was already out and in position from some Burl Ives songs Miss Knirps had played for us. As he pulled out his record, Miss Knirps naturally went over to help him.
As she reached for the record, which was not in the album cover, she spotted the label on it and froze for approximately one half second. Then, with her smile held with the firmness of rigor mortis, she took it from him, placed it on the player, and played “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo.” Which, in case you don’t know, has no words and is a Duke Ellington tune of the sort children would enjoy and teachers would not object to. Even if it is being played by Steely Dan.
“But that’s not –” Joey started to say.
Miss Knirps pressed one finger on her lips and another, firmly, on his. “Let’s listen.”
The tune done, she handed the record back to Joey and said, “You must thank your sister for lending us her record.” He hadn’t mentioned that it was hers. Apparently this was an easy guess. “But tell her to be careful and make sure it doesn’t get damaged. I think it could get scratched if you keep bringing it here.” And, smiling ever so sweetly, she sent him back to his seat, his face now looking like someone else had just eaten his ice cream. We couldn’t figure out why.
But of course we found out later, after school, and several of us got Janis to play it for us until she heard her mother coming home.
As for Miss Knirps, she switched genres, preferring to base her verse on literature that no one’s teenage sister was likely to be reading. She read us “The Highwayman” largely unaltered, quite a thing to do for grade two kids in 1974. She also read us something that to this day I haven’t traced for certain but strongly suspect was based on Charles Bukowski; I remember her saying “We danced and danced and danced and danced. And danced.” Heh. Danced indeed.
In retrospect, I do believe that Miss Knirps would have been more disturbed to hear us singing the nonstandard negatives (“you don’t wanna call nobody else”; “and I ain’t got no worries”) than to hear us singing about adult romantic entanglements. Such poor language was not for good children! I know for certain that it was those, and not the entanglements – more adumbrated than explicit, and opaque to us at that age anyway – that really blew away Joey. And the rest of us, too. Hearing them in those songs was the linguistic equivalent of seeing Miss Knirps taking a pee.
Here are the songs mentioned: