In addition to the incomparable Miss White, my other eighth grade teacher was Miss Felice. She too was young, and full of good humor. My feelings toward Miss Felice were less, um, hormonal, but nonetheless I appreciated her enthusiasm, wackiness and energy level, wonderful qualities generally found only in the very youngest middle-school teachers.
It was only years later that I figured out that the sometimes bitter and cynical older teachers in our school had probably once been more like my two young English teachers, before all the joi d’ecole had been knocked out of them by years of battlling with the public school system.
Miss Felice (even her name was happy) was the person who introduced me to the magic of Nina. Some of you might already know about Nina, but it was Miss Felice who turned me on to this wonderful bit of urban culture, a beautiful gem tucked away in the corner of New York life.
Al Hirschfeld was possibly the greatest caricaturist of the twentieth century. He died only a few years ago, at the grand old age of ninety nine and a half, after having drawn, with his magic pen, the defining image of pretty much everybody of note who popped up during the eighty years or so of his mighty reign, including just about every celebrity and major politician, as well as various gangsters, gin runners and assorted riffraff.
He had the uncanny ability to capture the pure essence of a famous person, fusing appearance and personality together with a few well chosen lines, somehow completely bypassing mere “realism” on his way to something far deeper and more true. For many years Hirschfeld was the image of The New York Times Arts and Leisure section. And one day Miss Felice pointed out to me that just to the right of his signature, he usually put a small number, like 3 or 5. It was the number of occurrances in the drawing where he had hidden the name of his daughter Nina.
At the time, I thought that was just about the most wonderful gift a father could give his child, and I was utterly charmed by the entire idea of it. Thenceforth, every Sunday morning when The Times was delivered to our house, the first thing I would do was find all the Ninas. I got really good at it after a while. Of course, by the time I learned about all this, Nina was already grown up, but that didn’t take anything away from the experience. And he kept it up too, until he passed away at ninety nine, by which point Nina was fifty eight.
So I became a big fan of Miss Felice. Then, oddly, one day she too had her Miss White moment, but with a twist. It was the day I noticed a cute miniature figurine of a teddy bear on her desk. I asked her what its name was. Miss Felice replied, in her usual bright and perky way, “Gladly, my cross-eyed bear!” I looked more closely, and sure enough the little fellow was indeed cross-eyed.
And then about a minute later it hit me. This little knick-knack was a token of religious faith. It gave her a way to say, out loud: “Gladly my Cross I’d bear.”
To me there was something dubious about this. For Miss Felice to communicate her Christian faith to a schoolboy through the prism of a bad pun was completely consistent with her endearingly loopy nature, but to my twelve year old brain it was all a bit troubling, a little like thinking you’re watching Avenue Q, and then suddenly the goofy puppets start acting out scenes from Left Behind.
When my beautiful Miss White had tried to steer my impressionable and love-struck young mind down the path of Scientology, she had merely broken my heart. In that moment she had ceded her coolness, and so the whole episode had held no threat.
But with Miss Felice on the other hand, I was encountering something much more troubling. I was forced to realize that even when people are cool and goofy and have appropriate respect for the supreme majesty of bad puns, they might still be trying to sell you something.
And that’s scary.