Mrs. Northcott was considered an institution at Port Leaver Secondary School. There were even some who secretly wondered if perhaps she was older than the institution itself. She had been there for so long, no one could remember a time when the beloved English teacher hadn’t been around to teach the beauty of Shakespeare, the mastery of Steinbeck and the raw honesty of Hemingway.
Students who had long since graduated and moved away returned frequently to thank the only person who had been able to teach them when to use you’re instead of your, they’re instead of their or there, and lie instead of lay. Those who stayed in the area made sure to buy a house within the school’s district so their own children could be taught by her. Meanwhile, newly minted teachers sent their resumes elsewhere because they had heard of the great, unstoppable Martha Northcott and figured she wouldn’t be retiring anytime soon.
It was Jenna Aldershot who helped to ruin things for the sweet old gal. Jenna, a budding journalist, was the editor of the school’s newspaper and she thought doing a story on the school’s longest serving teacher would be one her fellow students would want to read. She underestimated the number of people who would want a copy of the paper, however, because once word spread about the interview everyone from classmates to the police and members of the Board of Education demanded one.
The story started out innocently enough with Jenna asking Mrs. Northcott to name her favourite writer; which, surprisingly, was Jack Kerouac. She also asked what made her love teaching so much. “Seeing my students fall in love with really great writing,” was the answer. The thing she enjoyed the least was when students were late handing in their papers. And when she wasn’t in class, she liked to curl up at home with a good book.
It was at this point that the story got interesting.
“And where did you train to be a teacher?” Jenna asked.
“Port Leaver Secondary School, my dear,” Mrs. Northcott replied.
“I’m sorry, you must have misheard me,” Jenna then said. “The question wasn’t ‘Which schools have you taught at?’ I asked where you trained.”
“I heard you just fine, young lady. As I said, right here at Port Leaver Secondary School.”
“I wasn’t aware the school once offered teacher training. How long ago was that?” a confused Jenna then asked.
“The school has never offered such a program. One would have to go to university for that.”
“So, which university did you attend then?”
“I’ve never attended university. I’ve been on the campuses of a few, to visit my children and grandchildren, but as a student? Heavens, no. Back when I was young, only rich people could afford to send their children to university. My family’s financial situation was so dire, I had no choice but to end my studies after Grade 10 and go to work, so that’s what I did.”
Jenna didn’t know how to respond to what she had just heard, so Mrs. Northcott graciously filled in the blanks. Forced to find a job, Mrs. Northcott (Martha Feeny back then) didn’t much relish the thought of factory work or waitressing, but she did love the thought of being able to read all day. As fate would have it, she was having an illicit affair at the time with the married Principal of Port Leaver Secondary School (Martha had attended a different school on the other side of the city). She showed up at his office one day demanding a teaching job in exchange for keeping her mouth shut. Mr. Creepy Principal didn’t want to risk being found out, and since his underage lover knew more about literature than anyone he had ever met, he placed her in the English Department. He left the school a few years later, taking their secret with him. By then, Martha had become fully ensconced within its hallowed halls and no one ever thought to question her credentials.
“So what you’re saying is, you’re not actually qualified to be a teacher here or anywhere else.”
“My child, people with far less intelligence than yours truly have been elected President of the United States, so let’s not split hairs, okay?”
Members of the Board of Education weren’t interested in splitting hairs, but they were hell bent on removing the lady with a full head of grey ones from the school. Mrs. Northcott was immediately fired (although she did make an interesting argument for how it was technically impossible to fire someone who wasn’t actually an employee).
In the end, she wasn’t too upset by her dismissal. She figured this day would come eventually and that’s why she socked away her pay over the years. Plus, everyone agreed – her tale was better than anything they had ever read in class. What more could a lover of great storytelling want?