Waning Gibbous Moon
During the 1964-1965 school year I was in the seventh grade at St. Monica School in Dallas, Texas. This was when the baby boomers were really booming. Every grade, K through 8, had four classes of boys and girls, with fifty to fifty-five kids in each class. Most of the teachers were nuns and each mighty nun ruled her classroom like a Texas Nazi concentration camp. The school motto was not "shut up and learn," but it could have been.
In each grade, the four classes were separated by test scores into an Accelerated Class, a Pretty Smart But Unmotivated Class, a Bunch of Smartass Underachievers Class, and a Juvenile Delinquent Future Burdens on Society Class. I was among the most skilled at taking tests designed for well-behaved white boys so I was near the top of the Accelerated Class. Every nun I had in grade school was certain that one day I would be the President of the United States of America. I am not sure any of those mighty nuns were very bright.
We studied English grammar and arithmetic like our lives depended on it, but most of the focus otherwise was on memorizing the Catholic Catechism and learning about the Lives of the Saints. I thought St. Monica must have been pretty cool, mainly because she was the mother of St. Augustine of Hippo, my favorite saint in those days, who in some ways was the Roman Catholic equivalent of Siddhartha. His journey toward spiritual enlightenment and sainthood took many surprising turns down Hedonistic Avenue and Hellraiser Row, but somehow he popped out on the Stairway to Heaven and all was forgiven. I love a happy ending, don't you?
Anyway, in seventh grade, for the first time in the history of St. Monica School, the powers that be decided to try something new and radical. Instead of sitting silently in our assigned desks in seven rows of eight kids all morning and all afternoon listening and watching septuagenarian Sister Cantius drone and spray spittle, we got to sit silently and listen to an alternating array of different teachers teaching different subjects. Every hour or so, another nun or a "lay" teacher would enter the classroom. We took that as a cue to put away one book and take out another. In the Accelerated Class, it was a precise, elegant exercise, like synchronized swimming, most of the time consuming less than five seconds. There was no wasted motion. We were all about shutting up and learning, the more solemn the process the better. So accelerated we were.
The English teacher that year was a rather large, imposing "lay" woman with a fierce demeanor and a commanding, booming voice. It was actually kind of scary the way her words took up the air spaces in between the attentive, accelerated children. If you moved an inch in any direction, you would bump right up into the deep, vibrating, dominating, Alpha Woman sound waves filling the room like cascading sea foam from repeating winter sets of Santa Cruz breakers. Be still. Be very still.
The name of this strict, dominating, huge woman was Miss Humann. In 1964-1965, nobody in any Catholic school in the nation used the title "Ms." It was Miss Humann and nothing else. I had no idea what her first name was or even if she had one.
Toward the end of the school year, Miss Humann announced that she was going to produce a school play, something which had not happened at St. Monica School in ages, if ever. The name of the play was The Importance of Being Earnest, which I later learned was written by Oscar Wilde, and that I am told is a pretty big deal. I may have been very talented at scoring high on aptitude tests but I didn't and still don't know diddly squat about playwrights. Miss Humann announced that interested accelerated students could sign up to "read" for a limited number of speaking roles in the play after school the next day. So I signed up on the list on the teacher desk sort of automatically because that's what accelerated young men did. We did things. We were doers.
As I finished drawing my name in flawless, Catholic cursive, I glanced up to see Miss Humann staring at me from her chair. It was a terrifyingly cold stare, a stare that seemed to say "What the ____ are you doing signing up for a speaking role in MY play?" I was immediately intimidated to say the least. What was I doing? Never once in my brief life had I ever considered acting in a play. I had never even seen a play and "acting" was completely out of character for my shut up personality. But there it was, my flawless, Catholic, cursive signature, so I had to show up in my time slot. Maybe it wouldn't be all that bad.
It was that bad. It was quite horrible. I sat in a chair at the side of Miss Humann's desk. She glared at me and shoved a book in my direction with loud instructions to read the first paragraph on page number whatever. The passage was only a few sentences long and the words were all words that I recognized, so I read them to her, thinking "is this all there is?"
That was all there was. She took the book from me and very stiffly thanked me for being on time. I was doing my best to shut up and learn, but I didn't know what to do next.
"You may go" she said, so I did.
I think I went to the play but I can't really remember. All I remember is that the next year Miss Humann was not one of our teachers, we no longer did the new and radical teacher switching thing, and we did not have a play in eighth grade. Nobody really cared. In 1965-1966, we were all getting ready to leave good ole St. Monica behind. Over the summer, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones had successfully erased most of the Catechism from our accelerated brains - whoosh! - like lifting the film on an Etch-a-Sketch. All gone!
I didn't think of Miss Humann again until 1971. That year, a movie came out based on Larry McMurtry's brilliant novel The Last Picture Show. It was really fantastic - I think it got something like eight Academy Award nominations. I was a freshman at the University of Texas in Austin then and just beginning what has been a lifelong semi-worship of Larry McMurtry's writings.
Watching the movie was a real treat, but something happened along the way that sort of blew my freshman mind. The story is too complicated and beautiful to tell in a few sentences and I won't even try, but let's focus just for a second on the scene when Billy, a young boy and prominent character in the story, loses his virginity to the rowdy town prostitute in the back seat of a 1950-ish automobile. The rowdy town prostitute, Jimmie Sue by name, was a large, imposing, loud woman who had been paid by poor Billy's friends to introduce him to the wiles of Hedonistic Avenue.
The scene was brief and rollicking but the audience got a clear look at Jimmie Sue's back seat skills and a clearer idea of her rather dynamic role in the story. That was astonishing, given Billy's young age and his decidedly un-accelerated learning abilities, but what was way more astonishing was the fact that the actress playing Jimmie Sue was none other than Helena Humann, aka Miss Humann, my seventh grade English teacher.
Ms. Humann also played the role of Peach in the Lonesome Dove mini series and had bit parts in several other movies, including that of a hilariously dominating nun in 1990's Problem Child. I for one am happy that she attained some level of success in the movie business. Ms. Humann passed on much too soon at the age of 52 on December 13, 1994.
Peace, Love, and The Importance of Being Humann,