Swampscott, Mass Let me tell you about my fifth-grade classroom. It was upstairs in the 80-year-old wing of the Stanley School, right under a classic New England cupola. We young scholars sat at manila-yellow desks that squished our knees. Over on the left side a series of cages held all manner of wildlife. On the chalkboard, in Palmer-perfect script, were written the details of the life cycle of the butterfly, or maybe the distinction between herring gulls, black-backed gulls, Bonaparte’s gulls and common terns, for in our beach town and especially in this classroom these distinctions took on great importance.
Presiding over this mess of litter and learning was Clara Waterman.
We thought she was as wise as the hills, and as ancient, too. She was 55 years old then, precisely our age today. And we were 10. So if you do the math (and Miss Waterman taught math along with science) you will figure out that she turns 100 this year. In fact, on Tuesday.
She’s in a nursing home today on the Maine Coast, and also in the hearts and thoughts of her many hundreds of students, who remember her as the best teacher we ever had and as the focal point of the best memories of our childhoods. There is not one among us who does not remember the way she talked, with that twang of island Maine that has all but disappeared today, and with that sense of gentleness and authority that shaped the way we look at butterflies, herring gulls and life itself.
She was born to teach, maybe because of where she was born, which was on the tiny island of North Haven off the coast of Maine. There her telephone number was 94, and one of her students remembers going on a family vacation to visit her — ordinarily that would be the most remarkable fact in this sentence — and when his family members arrived in Rockland they went to a motel, picked up a phone without a dial and were connected to someone named Edith, who in turn took the number 94 and said she had just seen Clara Waterman walking down the street.
Every August Miss Waterman would leave her island home, the family general store, the lobster boats and the deep-blue vistas of the windswept seas and steer her rambling turquoise Chevrolet down here, to the tamer coast of Massachusetts, to instruct the little urchins of Swampscott in the ways of nature and arithmetic. We listened, really listened, to every word the woman said.
Because the thing about Miss Waterman was not that she was tyrannical (that was the social studies teacher in the sixth grade, the only male teacher in the school, memorable for his devotion to white socks with black shoes); not that she was crazy-crude (that was the fourth-grade teacher who, in the year of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, still spoke of black men and women with the cruelest epithet in American English); not that she had a tragic hold on us (that was another fourth-grade teacher, whose sad fate it was to try to comfort us in the wake of President Kennedy’s assassination).
The thing about Miss Waterman was that while her curriculum was science and math, what she really taught was enthusiasm. And precision. You could not refer to the plump white birds that landed everywhere in our town as seagulls. There was no such thing as a seagull, even if that was the name of our high school yearbook, and if you were going to talk about a bird you ought to know the bird’s true name. Miss Waterman knew the difference between a laughing gull and an Arctic tern and by the time we finished the fifth grade, we did, too.
But we love and remember her not only because she was the person you approached if you found something that looked like a mouse attached to a twig and wanted to know what it was. (She’d take one look and tell you that soon it would develop into a cecropia moth.) She knew all those kinds of things, indeed a lot of things that she couldn’t possibly have learned at the Western Maine Normal School in Gorham, from which she graduated in the last year of Calvin Coolidge’s presidency.
For this was a woman — the first of this breed any of us had ever encountered — whose life and profession were so intertwined that you could not separate the one from the other. She learned things intuitively and taught them intuitively, and in retrospect we all wonder whether she taught so as to learn, or learned so as to teach, or lived to learn, or lived to teach, concluding, all of us, that of Miss Waterman it could be said that somehow she learned how to teach life, and did.
Not long ago, Francis Mayo, one of her former pupils, traveled to Miss Waterman’s home island and encountered an elderly North Haven resident on the dock. Mayo, 59, asked the man if he knew Clara Waterman and expected one of those trademark comments from a taciturn old Yankee. Instead the man’s eyes filled with tears as he told how Miss Waterman, then 98, had been taken off the island to the nursing home.
“Now, Rex,” Miss Waterman said to the man as she left, almost certainly for the last time, “I know you’ll keep my furnace running, because you know I’ll be back.” He promised he would.
This summer, a bunch of her former pupils got together to assure that a sculpture of a bronze shore bird be placed in her honor at the community center on the island, all the way up there off the coast of Maine. It’s a wonderful tribute and a beautiful sculpture, but if you happen to see it, pay the ultimate honor to Miss Waterman as she enters her 101st year. Please do not call it a seagull.