There’s a ton of stuff that’s rolling around in my head, some semi-clever or marginally profound ideas, several of which I’ve already started to put into words and several more that I’m hoping will eventually get there. But I’m not ready with any of it.
So then I open yesterday’s mail and discover that one of my favorite teachers died on Deb and my wedding anniversary. Her name was Sallie Scott. She deserves more than this, but I know from experience that if I don’t get something down now, my sense of inadequacy will only grow and I won’t write anything.
She was only 59 when she passed. She taught at Big Sky and Sentinel High Schools in Missoula, Montana. Sallie Scott affected me deeply. I only had her for one class, Humanities, which I took in my junior year, but it was probably my favorite from all of high school and it was certainly the source of many of my fondest memories of those teenage years. The facts that I developed a deep appreciation for literature (and especially for William Blake), that I finally concluded that a literary (v. systematic, dogmatic or philosophical) approach to the Bible is the most frutiful, that I believe that we, the Church, can do so much better, and that I still aspire to write all owe a great deal to her guidance and inspiration. The following is a random recollection.
She had the most amazing wit and, as I recall, she was the most delightfully sarcastic instructor I have ever had. I won’t name any names, but one of my friends would sometimes try to fake his way through an answer when called on in class. My friend was a bright and funny young man and not a bad student, but sometimes he got it wrong. Mrs. Scott would listen attentively and thoughtfully and then proclaim, with just a touch of mirth and, yes, derision, “Clean miss, Jim.” It got to the point that it was so much fun hearing her say that I would secretly hope for him to be called on and be wrong. I’m so sorry, Jim. And I’m sorry I mentioned your name, but it just didn’t sound as good without your name at the end of it.
Mrs. Scott seemed to genuinely enjoy everything we studied and, as I remember it, she was laughing all of the time. If she wasn’t overtly laughing, there was a laugh hidden somewhere in her voice or in the corner of her eye.
Mrs. Scott was not too tall (okay, she was short), but she was a powerful and commanding presence. And as I’ve already mentioned, she didn’t coddle.
Mrs. Scott recognized my background and was always calling on me to explain a biblical story, when it was appropriate. This did a few things for me. 1) It made me nervous that I was going to get something wrong, but then increasingly confident that I did know a thing or two. 2) It opened my eyes to the pervasive, foundational and profound impact that the Jewish and Christian scriptures have had even on so-called secular society and culture. 3) It fostered a growing disappointment and discontent that so many in our culture–especially those who claim to literally stake their eternal lives on it–know almost nothing about the Bible. BTW, just to be clear, Mrs. Scott clearly did, as she often demonstrated by filling in a fact or two that I had omitted; I think she was just calling on me to be nice.
I really didn’t know much about Mrs. Scott’s faith, but I knew that she knew the Word and appreciated it as a literary masterpiece and the source and subtext for most of Western literature and philosophy. As it turns out, in her life outside the classroom, she was a woman of great faith. And, in the end, her sense of the story and beauty of Scripture have come to mean so much more to me than the sense of theological correctness I had heard most of my life, up to that point, from the Church.
Mrs. Scott introduced me to Northrop Frye, with whom I don’t always agree but whose sprawling prose and enduring belief in an eternal narrative, the ubiquitous Christ, type and archetype are still essential to my understanding not only of literature but of all art and life.
Again, recognizing who I was and what I valued, Mrs. Scott lent me two books that year that continue to rock my world.
One was Freud’s “The Future of an Illusion,” the famous psychologist’s scathing critique and ultimate dismissal of religion. By no means did the book undermine my faith. Instead, as I am sure she expected, it gave me deeper insight and respect for valid perspectives that are different from mine. In fact, some of Freud’s critique hurts because it’s true. On the other hand, much of what he says derives from flawed presuppositions and thinly veiled prejudices of his own. In any case, Sallie respected me enough to challenge me to find out for myself.
Sallie Scott is also the person who introduced me to William Blake. In fact, she handed me a facsimile edition of Blake’s illuminated landmark, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. The world could not contain the volumes to express what this did for my world view. The image of plate 5, the inverted horse and rider, is forever engraved (and, I suppose, water-colored–inside Blake joke) on my mind. And the accompanying text is, to this day, among my favorite passages from all of English literature. Here’s an excerpt:
“But in the Book of Job Miltons Messiah is call’d Satan.
For this history has been adopted by both parties.
It indeed appear’d to Reason as if Desire was cast out, but the Devils account is that the Messiah fell, & formed a heaven of what he stole from the Abyss.”
Realize, I was in a fundamentalist church and I believed what I was being taught there (and, if I’m honest, to a great extent, still do). To me this looked like it might be blasphemy (forget the provocative text and images; consider just the title) but I loved it. And it had so much more depth than the spin-doctored sermonizing and prooftexting to which I was accustomed. As I would find out, Blake was a devout follower of Jesus and meant not (at least not only) to deride the Church but to rescue her from the bondage to which she had submitted.
I had already come to realize I couldn’t follow the Falwells and Robertsons of this world and was unwilling to accept their narrow and, frankly, false, interpretation of righteousness. In Blake I found a friend, mentor and source of great solace when all the world around me seemed finally insane. Blake, like Mrs. Scott herself, was unafraid to laugh at the self-important defenders of propriety; William and Sallie were willing to boldly fight for freedom and human dignity even if the church or larger culture felt that such values were somehow inconvenient, extraneous or out of place. Blake understood and articulated the truth that the Holy Spirit acts preeminently in imagination and exuberant creativity and not at all, as we so often suppose, with oppression and accusation, with “mind-forg’d manacles of fear.”
Sallie, I will always remember your humor, your passion for literature and thought, your loving concern for your students, your insight and thoughtfulness, your intelligence. And I can’t ever forget your face–that sometimes sardonic, but still somehow gentle, smile and those laughing eyes–or your voice. Thank you for who you are and how you lived and what you taught and thank you for changing so many lives as I know you did mine. I have no doubt that you are laughing still.