My sixth grade English teacher was markedly overweight and serious about fashion. Her dresses were beautifully tailored and she wore them with authority. I couldn’t wait each day to see how she would coordinate her pocketbook to her dress. Given that she never wore the same pair in any one week, she could have been the model for Jennifer Weiner’s shoe-smitten heroine, Rose Feller. I marveled that Mrs. Farmer owned not just turquoise shoes, but pale green, and orange ones, too. The boys were relentless in their mockery, whispering none too quietly over the irony that this outsized woman had Cinderella-sized feet.
Mrs. Farmer read us poetry every Friday afternoon. All I remember of the day she read Robert Burns’ To a Louse, is the well-known first couplet of the poem’s last verse:
Oh wad some power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
She read the poem in the original Scotch. I was so befuddled by the hazily familiar words, that I understood nought but that now-famous couplet. Or maybe I understood the couplet because of the disdain shimmering in her voice as she recited it, putting special emphasis on the word “ithers.” Those lines, her voice, even where I sat in class (second row from the end, first seat, at the corner of her desk) are burned into memory.
Her tone said it all: we were more irritating than lice. We were lice-ridden, raucous, and mannerless monkeys. For the record I never mocked her, even though I did wonder how those size five shoes supported her prodigious weight. What’s more, I couldn’t understand what kind of God-given gift it would be to see ourselves as the worst that we were.
It was years before it occurred to me to consider Burns’ lines in an alternative light – that it could be a gift to see ourselves perhaps as the generous person our neighbor sees us as or as the rock of strength our kids might tell us we are for them. OK, Burns was writing about a louse roaming through the beribboned hat worn by a fine lady who sat in the church pew in front of him. But still, how often do we take the time to praise a friend, co-worker or acquaintance for a characteristic of theirs we find particularly endearing or worthy?
I thought of Burns and Mrs. Farmer the other day in the checkout line at Kroger. I had just put two party-size trays of five-cheese lasagna on the belt. Then, boxes of raspberries, blueberries and strawberries. As I unloaded the grapes, a woman about my age drew up behind me. She was tight from ponytail to posterior as only women who devote themselves to their bodies can be. I instantly saw myself through her eyes and imagined her thinking as she looked at my cart’s offerings, “What’s up with that lasagna? Kinda incongruous with all that fruit, eh?” Also for the record, the lasagna was part of the dinner our synagogue was preparing for parents living at our local Ronald McDonald House.
I pushed my groceries along the belt to make room, not even glancing into her cart. She said, “Oh, you make me feel so guilty! Look at all this junk I’m buying!” She gestured to the box of frosted donuts on the belt and then to her cart, filled to the brim with a veritable grande bouffe of sugars, fats, carbs and red dye No. 2: Cheetos, Dove Bars, Doritos…
“My kids came home from camp last night,” she continued, reaching for a jumbo package of Double Stuffed Oreos. “ ‘There’s nothing in the house to eat!’ they hollered. So…,” she held up the donuts, “breakfast.”
“Enjoy every minute with them,” I said. “My kids used to say the same thing to me when they came home.” I smiled, sending approbation her way. “I’d lay in supplies, too.” To see ourselves as ithers see us indeed.
I loved Eleanor Farmer’s orange sling backs. And the aqua shirtwaist dress with the matching straw bag woven through with straw flowers. I loved being in her class; she was a great teacher whose party-sized love of the English language made words come alive. I hope God somehow gave her the gift of seeing herself through the eyes of at least one “ither.”