Introduction to this Stone Soup Writing Activity
Here you find Part One of Clea’s story. In a separate activity, we’ll offer the second part.
The main story, or plot, is about a teachers called Mrs. Davids, though there is a second story, something we call a subplot, about a little girl, Flora Pinecrust. Mrs. Davids has a problem, and the main subject of “As Long as We’re Happy” is how she deals with this problem.
In Part One of the story Mrs. Davids isn’t very happy at all. She seems to have no friends, and her husband has left her, apparently with little or no warning. While Mrs. Davids tries to cope with her problems, she has nobody to talk to, and it turns out that she can’t help herself very well. We see her become a moody, mean person, lacking self-control and unable to deal politely with her students.
A problem or crisis is a common beginning point for storytellers and novelists. I think that is because it is through showing how a character deals with a problem that storytellers and novelists can most easily reveal the complete personality of their character.
In “As Long as We’re Happy” the main difficulty Mrs. Davids has to struggle with is really herself, her loneliness, her own inability to keep control of her emotions. This is not an “action” or “adventure” story where the problem to be overcome is something in the outside world, like a mountain to be climbed, or a horse to be broken in. It is more of a quiet “psychological” story where the struggle takes place in a person’s heart and soul.
Project: A Character With a Problem
I want you to write a story in which you reveal the personality of your character by showing how that character responds to a personal crisis or problem. The important word here is “showing.” Clea reveals the personalities of her characters by showing us what they do or say in little scenes. Each of the scenes is like a little play. You might, in fact, try performing selected parts of it, like Clea does in the scene where Mrs. Davids first meets Flora, or a classroom scene, or the meeting between Mrs. Davids and the principal.
I’d like to see you write your story so that with only a little extra work a group of people could enact the story. If you have a video camera you could also make all or part of your story into a movie.
As Long As We’re Happy
By Clea Rivera, 14, Hightstown, New Jersey
Illustrated by the author
From the September/October 1986 Issue of Stone Soup
I was a proud woman on my first day teaching at the elementary school. I was trying to be the typical teacher. I brought a shiny red apple and placed it on my desk. I wore a stiff black skirt and high-collared white blouse and did a fine job of commanding my third grade class to work. I held the white, dusty chalk firmly and wrote neatly on the blackboard in ridiculously large letters.
I was also very happy, for I was engaged to a handsome doctor about ten years older than me. Every afternoon he’d spin me off in his little racy car or he’d sometimes take me out to dinner.
“Boys and girls, who can tell me what five times five is?” I asked that first day.
Several rowdy boys and a few girls began shouting answers. However, one girl raised her hand.
“Twenty-five,” she answered.
“Very good. What is your name?”
“Everyone, did you see how polite Grace was?” The room was quiet.
“Have I gone deaf?” I asked.
Finally, the children assented that Grace had been polite and they promised to be that way, too, in the future.
* * *
Three years later I was promoted to teach the sixth grade, therefore switching from the elementary to the junior high school. I was married now and I had the same batch of children that I had in third grade. I sometimes found it a little hard to hold a job now. I made all the meals and did all the cleaning at home. My husband, the doctor, didn’t help much. But I was more experienced and didn’t put on such airs as I did when I first became a teacher.
The next summer my husband deserted me. He took our car with him. I was left with very little money and I felt miserable.
Walking along on the first day of school I saw a thin, scraggly child blocking the sidewalk. I tried to pass her, but suddenly she fell into stride a few paces in front of me. Before I knew it she turned around abruptly and bumped into me.
“Make up your mind,” I told her, “which way you want to go!”
I meant it as a joke, but it came out in an annoyed, high-pitched voice which wasn’t mine.
The girl evidently decided to go in the opposite direction and I felt guilty for having spoken harshly to her. I decided to be very kind to my class if I was capable of it. I had been promoted to the seventh grade still with the same bunch of pupils. They were my favorites. Grace Matthews could write like a poet, and Peter Tyner was excellent in math. I had nicknamed him Calculator.
Anyway, I walked into the room and their radiant faces made me feel so much better.
“Hi, Mrs. Davids!” cried Peter.
“How is the old Calculator?” I asked, grinning.
Grace came up to my desk very discreetly as if she had a secret.
“Mrs. Davids, would you like to read my novel?” she asked softly.
“Your novel?!” I cried.
“Over the summer I wrote a novel and I’d like you to criticize it,” she said.
“I’d be glad to.”
She giggled happily and went to talk with her friends.
After some time I was able to quiet the students down and I began my beginning-of-the-year speech.
“Hello again, my friends. I know most of you, but I am told we have a few new students.”
“How was your summer, Mrs. Davids?” one of the class clowns interrupted.
“Danny, hold your talking till later.”
“Oh, but Mrs. Davids, you don’t know what Danny did over the summer,” cried Grace. “Can I tell her, Danny?”
“Not now!” I said firmly. “Grace, I understand your excitement at being back in school and I know you are a very good story-teller, which I am sure will be evident in your novel, but for now be so kind as to listen. And when you want to speak, please raise your hand like you did in third grade. Remember?”
The class went off into peals of laughter. I was beginning to lose patience. I feared my temper would reign over my good nature and the students I loved so dearly would see a side of me they had never seen before.
I felt a tap on my shoulder and Grace proudly presented a manuscript to me.
“Mrs. Davids, if there’s incorrect grammar, it’s only when the husband is speaking because, you see, he was brought up in the country back woods and. . . oh, Mrs. Davids, look at Danny!”
Danny was dancing on top of the desks. When he saw me he jumped to his seat and wiped the grin off his face. I asked him what he was doing. He said he was showing the class how they danced in Africa where he supposedly stayed over the summer. Then someone asked me how my husband was, and I blew up. I screamed and yelled and told them to quit calling me Mrs. Davids and start calling me Ms. Cunningham, my maiden name. I ordered them to sit, silently, and write a fifteen-page essay on rudeness. That’s how we spent the first day of school.
* * *
After they had all gone home and the room was at peace at last I calmed myself. I resolved to read Grace’s novel that night and burn the essays. I was ashamed of my conduct. Outside the window a cool September breeze was blowing. I thought how lovely it would be to walk home in that breeze.
As I walked past the principal’s office toward the front door his secretary, Gladys, called me in. She told me to wait until he finished his phone call and then just to step into his office as he wanted to chat.
“You must be a little hoarse,” he said. “Would you like a cough drop?”
I had no idea what he meant by that remark.
“Doing a lot of yelling today, weren’t you?”
“Why do you ask?”
“Well, for one thing,” he said, “we heard you. All of us. First, Sara, the teacher in the next room, the librarian across the hall. Even I heard you when I walked past to go to lunch. Why all the yelling?”
“I don’t know. I just feel a little tensed, that’s all,” I said, feeling my eyes water.
“Tensed about what?”
“Nothing.” I turned to the wall and began to sob.
“You were verbally abusing the students. If this happens again you will be fired.”
I got up and ran to the front door, but the janitor had locked it already. I ran back to my classroom, buried my head on the desk, and cried for I don’t know how long. It was until I sneezed tremendously about four or five times. A soft voice startled me by saying, “God bless you.”
There was a girl sitting at one of the desks. It looked like the same scraggly child I had seen that morning. But I thought that was impossible. Maybe it was one of my new students. At any rate I decided to get home instead of asking the girl who she was. I’d had enough problems to face in one day.
* * *
“I cannot stand pork,” Gladys said conversationally at the annual teachers’ luncheon. I was helping myself to hunks of pork in tomato sauce. “Hasn’t your husband told you how bad it is for the heart?”
“I don’t care what my husband told me,” I said.
“Oh!” cried Gladys. “Shame on you. If I was married I’d do absolutely anything my husband told me. I’d wait on him beck and call.”
“Well, you’re the type of person who would rather do things for others than yourself.” I was trying to get away from her. Whenever marriage was mentioned I found myself shuddering and the heat rose inside of me. But she followed.
“That’s not true!” she cried. “I have a lot of individuality. That’s why someone asked me to marry him.”
“Who?” I asked dryly.
“Who do you think?”
I’d heard a lot about the romance between Gladys and our school principal, George Hammil. It was rumored that they were engaged. But I said I had no idea who had asked her to marry him.
“Georgie, of course!” she cried gleefully. “His sister is going to be a bridesmaid, but we need a matron of honor. He doesn’t know anyone who could do it. His best friend’s wife is in Europe, and I don’t have any young married relatives or friends. Would you be our matron? George was afraid you’d say no.”
“Well, he was right.”
I left the table. How could I be a matron when my husband had deserted me? Poor Gladys.
* * *
“You’re late, Ms. Cunningham!” Peter said as I dashed into the classroom one day. “And you’re always telling us to be on time.” I took off my raincoat and hung it on the hook as I said, “I’m sorry. I had to walk.” ”
What happened to your car?” he asked.
“That is my own business,” I replied, glancing at the mirror in my desk drawer and seeing what a mess my hair was in. When I looked up I could tell he was taken aback.
“Grace,” I said, “I have finished your novel and I’d like to speak to you about it.”
“Oh good!” she cried and ran up to my desk.
I opened my briefcase and pulled out the manuscript, which was blurred with rainwater. I hadn’t known the rain would seep into my briefcase. I held it close to me so that Grace wouldn’t see the imperfections the water had made.
“This is a very good novel,” I said, “In fact, I would say it is excellent. I think you should try to get it published. If you would like I’ll type it for you. There’s only one mistake in grammar.”
“But, Mrs. Davids, remember…
“Ms. Cunningham, please,” I corrected.
“Ms. Cunningham, that’s only when the husband is talking.”
“There is one place here where you write, ‘He sees a bird. He said it was a lark.’ You’ve just changed tenses. There is a rule against that in writing. Do you understand?”
She said she did, but she seemed very upset I had criticized her. It was the first time I’d done so and she was used to lavish praise from me.
I gave the students an assignment to write a true paper about their goals in life. I was inspired by Grace’s apparent desire to be a novelist and thought it might be interesting to know what some of the more passive students wanted to do with their lives.
“Let me ask each of you what you think you might like your career to be and then we will begin writing. I know Grace will become a famous writer. Peter, what would you like to do?” I asked.
“Write math books.”
A few pupils laughed at this idea. Danny said it would be boring to sit in a stuffy office all day staring at numbers. He wanted to be a construction worker. There were quite a variety of occupations stated that day. Among them were artists, archaeologists, one minister, dancers, investors, housewives, musicians, journalists, lawyers, and a veterinarian. But when it came to Flora Pinecrust she said the most unusual thing of all. Flora was the scraggly girl who had seen my distress the first day. I knew very little of her, as she was a new student. She sat in the back row by herself and hardly ever said a word.
“What would you like to be, Flora?” I asked after everyone else had had a chance to speak.
“A mermaid,” she said dreamily. “That’s what I’d like to be, Ms. Cunningham.”
I saw Grace Matthews bite her lips as though she couldn’t keep from giggling, and she exchanged glances with other girls in the room.
“Maybe you did not understand what I asked for. Do you know what a goal is? It is something which you want for yourself very badly, and it is possible to get. Is it possible for you to become a mermaid?”
Grace laughed. I, for a moment, thought that Flora was touched in the head until she said, “In imagination.”
“Well, we are not talking about imagination. We are talking about real possibilities.”
“Then,” said Flora, “I want to help people.”
“How? Do you want to be a nurse? Or a sales clerk?”
“I want to talk to people and understand them.”
“Then, you mean, a psychiatrist?”
* * *
That day, when the students were eating lunch, I walked past the cafeteria and heard Grace’s bubbly voice. I was always happy to catch a bit of her conversation as it was usually very intelligent. As a teacher I know that several students will never talk intelligently because they hate school so much. So I stopped outside the door to eavesdrop.
“Don’t you think she’s getting meaner?” Grace was saying indignantly. “She was so strict about a little grammar mistake! And did you hear the way she yelled at Peter this morning, just for asking a simple question?! You’d think she has a big secret or something!”
When I grow up I would like to be a novelist. I want to have at least three books published before I marry. But when I marry I will not take my husband’s name. I will follow the example of my teacher, Ms. Cunningham, and become Ms. Matthews because, after all, my first three books will be by G. Matthews. So I’d like to keep G. Matthews alive.
That was her paper. I wondered, as I read it late into the night, if she really cared to follow the example of a teacher she hated.
My goal is to becum a mermaid because mermaids are so free. No one tells a mermaid what to do. She swims through the sea as she pleases and she is so beautiful. I don’t think I no how to go about becuming a mermaid, but maybe if one ate a lot of fish they wood gro a fishtail and if they looked in the mirror a grate deel they wood find their hed stayed a maiden’s hed. Then all they due is jump into the deep blue sea.
Somehow, despite all Flora’s spelling mistakes and inappropriate topic, I liked her paper better than Grace’s. It seemed simple, and it even made me laugh a little. It had been a long time since I laughed.
(to be continued in the next issue, November/ December 1986)