Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Mrs. Carlton

I was thrilled that my 7th grade American History teacher was to be Mrs. Barbara Carlton. My older brother had her the year before and told me that she was great. Where we lived near Boston, Revolutionary War history permeated the region. We had already been to Paul Revere’s House, the Bunker Hill Monument, the town green at Lexington – all courtesy of our schools, scout troops, and my own family, where my history loving mother led the way.

Mrs. Carlton was a vibrant teacher and charismatic lecturer and her wide smile and breathless tone of excitement inspired us.  Mrs. Carlton also charmed my impressionable 13 year old self with her 60’s mod style, which was in contrast to her passion for history - I learned that a girl could be both brainy and pretty. She wore her shirtdresses and A-line skirts with square toed slingbacks and printed tights, her swingy blond hair pulled back in a neat low ponytail, often with a red, white, and blue silk scarf tied around it. One of her dresses had petite brass buttons which matched her earrings and a gold coin charm bracelet. I loved when she wore her hip brown leather skirt with a mustard gold blouse, this time her long straight hair down on her shoulders and held back by a tortoiseshell clip on the top.  I realize now that she resembled a young Catherine Deneuve, and was never without her warm powdery perfume which filled the corners of our classroom. She wore simple makeup and frosted lipstick in a tawny tone.  Mrs. Carlton had feminine, gentle mannerisms and a modulated voice and yet still commanded attention in the classroom.  She was practical, pragmatic, and no nonsense and most of the boys were smitten, even knowing that she was a young wife with a husband in Vietnam.

For his part, the unseen Mr. Carlton supplied our classroom with a monthly tape recording of himself.  Mrs. Carlton used these tapes to complement our history lessons with current events and then drew parallels for us to discuss. The tapes became an anticipated treat and we sat attentively when our beloved teacher set up the large standard issue green tape machine. Soon we would hear Mr. Carlton’s young friendly voice boom out “Hi students! I hope you’re behaving for Mrs. Carlton”, and then he would launch into a one sided discussion about his location and give snippets of life as a GI stationed near a war zone. We enjoyed his tales of funny bunk mates and terrible food rations but we knew his life was dangerous. It was hard to fathom, with us tucked safely away in our cozy classroom and Mr. Carlton a world away in a jungle with biting mosquitos.  We knew why he was there and so we often supplied him with care packages of books, music, photographs, and cookies in thanks. The recordings always ended with him asking us to turn off the tape machine as "the rest was for Mrs. Carlton's ears only".  Being girlishly romantic, I imagined all the tender things a faraway husband would say to his beautiful young wife at home.

A week before Good Friday, she quietly asked me if  my mother would allow her to take me to an art museum when school would be closed for that day. She picked me up in her lovely sedan and drove me to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. It was the first time I had been to an art museum and she intuitively led the way through the galleries, showing me the museum’s collection of Renoir’s and Childe Hassam’s. But mostly she wanted to show me the Revolutionary era paintings of George Washington, Abigail Adams, Mercy Otis Warren, etc.  I was overcome to be so up close and personal to all the historical figures we had studied in class.  That trip fostered a lifelong love of art that possesses me still. We had an early dinner before she dropped me safely at home. I preened under her attention and chatted nonstop about what I saw and learned.

That Mrs. Carlton shared her husband’s experiences with us in a real way speaks to her love of teaching but also to her generosity.   She was generous in other ways too and has remained one of my favorite teachers.  She occupies a pedestal alongside my other style muses.


  1. Of course you were smitten! She's wonderful, Donna, and you've brought her to life for us. I hope that somehow, she knows just what she did in inspiring a lifelong love of history in you, all the while showing you that beauty and brains are a natural combination! One of my favorites!! Thanks for introducing us to her!
    I love her, too! She is the image of a very cool English teacher I had, who affected me in similar ways. You must have been over the moon to have her single you out that way...these days, that could probably never happen. Lucky you! Lovely, lovely piece!

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