I had this teacher in high school I’ll not soon forget. She taught Short Story and American Lit, but more than just that, she lived like a character plucked out of a good Faulkner or O’Connor piece. Those stories were always filled with “grotesques”: caricatures of southern people with some flaw in intellect or manners or both. Typically they had some sort of physical deformity as well–who can forget the one-legged gal the traveling Bible salesman, “Manly Pointer,” took up in the loft in “Good Country People.”
Mrs. Burgfeld was like one of the grotesques she taught about in that she was extreme, larger than life, exaggerated . . . yet she was delightfully non-grotesque in the beauty of her soul and the sharpness of her mind. She did have a fair gang of physical maladies, but rather than be debilitating, she joked of her pains like they were old, crotchety friends, cranky yet worth having around.
She taught us much about Literature–mostly just to sort of like it!–but more about life. I recall one lesson the day she confided in us, toward the end of Fall semester, that when she said, “God love you,” in conversation she was really just calling you dumb without offense. “No matter what you say to someone or about someone, if you preempt it with ‘God love him’ you’ll be fine.” We all laughed at this till we paused to recount the number of times she had used that very phrase to describe our papers or, at times, us.
She determined at some point that I could write a bit. Humor was my genre of choice and I carried around a copy of Dave Barry’s greatest essays like a government agent carries a badge. Mrs. Burgfeld asked what it was one day, and when I flashed it toward her, she batted it from my hands.
“Don’t bring that in here again. Mr. Barry is great, but you can already do what he does. Here . . .” She then wrote down two names for me on a scrap of paper, like a doctor prescribing life-saving meds: Sedaris. Thurber. “When you are finished with these let me know and I’ll get you others.” I’ve never finished with these, as they have become old acquaintances–one that perplexes and even beautifully depresses me, and the other that always lifts me. Both have spent fifteen years making me laugh.
My senior year I took English Composition with Mrs. Burgfeld because I had to. Not only in the college transcript/high school graduation sense, but in a felt need way that went beyond desire. The hour in her classroom opened up Narnia to us . . . only it was more true than Narnia because it was filled with so much realism, humor, and pain meds. Mrs. Burgfeld was always limping and hurting, but a sardonic joy about the whole to-do is all we ever got. It was truth–sorrowful yet always rejoicing.
I remember having visions of writing a book just after college, and I visited Mrs. Burgfeld so she could assess what I had thus far completed. In High School I had been her prized pupil, often getting to read my papers aloud to the class due to their creativity. I knew she would love the book, praise my wit, and fill my sails. She did none of these. In her no-nonsense way, she marked up the pages, picking out the stupid bits, the self-indulgence, the hollowness. At some point, I’m sure she said “God love ya.”
Upset at our meeting, I stowed the pages and feelings away for years. I then revisited them as a Creative Writing instructor at a small college. Littered with green ink (she refused to use red), the papers awaited me after work one day. I read them knowing I would love them and that I could uphold my now negative feelings for the woman who had crushed my writing dreams just a few years prior.
It was the worst feeling, reading those words for they confirmed two things: First, that Mrs. Burgfeld had been exactly right in her critique. If nothing else could be said about her it was that–the woman had impeccable taste for words. Of course she was right. Second, that I had grown up. My idealism didn’t shield me anymore, and unlike a Faulkner grotesque, I was not protected by a veneer of absent-minded innocence. That meant I knew who I was, who I would be, and subsequently–and cruelly–who I wasn’t.
Mrs. Burgfeld taught me about comma, splices. She taught us American Literature–its highs and lows. She took us down the river with Huck and Jim, and did a nasally Truman Capote impression that was horrible and hysterical.
But it is that last thing she taught me that has lasted. Truth, whether we are quite ready for it or need a few years first, is above all else. It doesn’t matter if it is hard or easy or what it may do to dreams and trajectories, it is truth all the same. That is what we are after in this life, whether poets, teachers, students, storytellers. Truth is what keeps us from being more than grotesques. Truth is what sets us free from our maladies, even while we are chained to them. Truth shines brighter than our strengths and sheds light on our weaknesses.
Sitting in that dank Southeast Missouri classroom, we masqueraded in English, but what we learned was truth.
Today, I got word that Mrs. Burgfeld died. I was saddened at the loss, smiled at the memories of her, and said a prayer of thanks for her life, her love, and the reminder she gave the world that though life may end for each of us, truth lives triumphantly on . . . oh sting-less death . . . truly, God love it.