When I was working at the New York Post a few months ago and giddily running everyone from my past through various searches, I looked up my favorite teacher from high school, Debra Schmitt, who I’d been thinking about a lot.
Back in the ’90s, she taught a class called Feminist (or was it Women’s?) Literature at Stuyvesant High School, a class that could not have been more up my 1994 alley. She was smart, theatrical, bawdy, very funny and a little reckless.
I remember her walking around the classroom one day in a long, stretchy red cotton turtleneck dress (it was the ’90s) talking about, I think, Alice Walker and the shame attached to women’s bodies, and she said, by way of example, “I put this dress on this morning and looked in the mirror and said, ‘Debra, everyone can see your nipples.’ And then I said, ‘I’m a woman. I have nipples!’ And so I wore the dress.”
In another lesson, about women and judgment, she mentioned that she was divorced and wondered if people judged her because of it. She imagined the chorus: “Maybe she’s this, maybe she’s that, maybe she’s not good in bed.” That seemed to be the worst indignity, having her sex appeal questioned. (It also seemed very unlikely to all of us in that room that she would not be good in bed.)
She talked to us about how to handle subway flashers and recalled her own experience having a man rub up against her while she was wearing a raincoat one day on a crowded subway, and how grossed out and furious she’d been when she’d figured out what had happened. When one student reported she’d been flashed and then called it to the attention of everyone on the train, humiliating the pervert, Ms. Schmitt beamed with pride.
All my lesbian friends had massive crushes on her. I was sure, and right, that she was the prettiest, wittiest, funniest teacher I would ever have.
But that’s not why I was thinking about her earlier this year. I was thinking about her because she changed my life with one book that I keep coming back to: Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping.
She obviously loved this book and knew it inside out. She read passages out loud, and it was like she was in that newspaper-clogged house, balancing on that trestle bridge, sitting alone in the orchard not wanting to go back inside.
I have read that book many times since. I have given it as a gift to countless people. I read a passage from it at my grandfather’s funeral, and I still find it one of the most comforting passages in all of literature:
Imagine a Carthage sown with salt, and all the sowers gone, and the seeds lain however long in the earth, till there rose finally in vegetable profusion leaves and trees of rime and brine. What flowering would there be in such a garden? Light would force each salt calyx to open in prisms, and to fruit heavily with bright globes of water– peaches and grapes are little more than that, and where the world was salt there would be greater need of slaking. For need can blossom into all the compensation it requires. To crave and to have are as like as the thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth, and when do our senses know anything so utterly as when we lack it? And here again is a foreshadowing– the world will be made whole. For to wish for a hand on one’s hair is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose, very craving gives us back to us again. Though we dream and hardly know it, longing, like an angel, fosters us, smoothes our hair, and brings us wild strawberries.
In the course of searching for her email address, I figured out that Ms. Schmitt had moved to California and was teaching at a high school there. Her students had even set up a fan page for her. But I couldn’t find her information right away, so I thought I’d try to look her up again another time.
Then I got the alumni magazine yesterday and saw that she had died in January. I looked up news reports and learned that she’d committed suicide and was not found for several days. When she was, it was in a creek bed. She’d taken a toxic combination of pills and alcohol.
Over the last few months, she’d apparently suffered the death of several close relatives and her husband had just filed for divorce.
Still: she had a school full of adoring students, and a beautiful fourteen-year-old son.
Women’s literature is full of suicides, especially around water. And in books they are poetic and symbolic. But in real life they are horrible in every way.