Edge of the Earth
MY PARENTS HAD laid out a lovely future for me in Milwaukee with tender care, as if they were smoothing the white coverlet over my rosewood bed. When I was graduated from the Milwaukee College for Females, I was to marry Ernst Dettweiler. Our wedding had been planned, mostly as a joke, while our mothers aired us as infants in Juneau Park. But why not? Ernst was a sweet, straightforward boy who met life’s pleasures head-on and made clear that he believed I was among them. He was as dear to me as sunshine. As my mother said fondly, “You know what you’re getting with Ernst.”
We were to live on one of the newer streets west of downtown. Although a wedding date had not been set—indeed, Ernst had not yet formally proposed—my father and Uncle Dettweiler had looked at two or three possible houses, and my mother had selected the peonies she intended to transplant to my yard and the furnishings from her own house that would be mine. Of course, we young people were expected to have ideas of our own. Within certain boundaries, our parents were willing, even eager, to indulge us.
Despite all of this—or perhaps because of it?—I’d been vaguely but persistently discontent, as if a bit of straw had lodged itself in some unreachable spot under my clothing. Back in early September, that glowing time that promises such riches for the academic months ahead, our college president had given a speech in Menomonee Hall, exhorting us girls to be of service in the world. She’d drawn a loose but definite connection between a graceful translation of Ovid and a young woman’s ability to contribute to the uplifting of mankind. But the more I’d thought about it, the less convinced I was of that connection, or at least of my ability to make it in the ways others saw fit. President McAdams had stressed the contribution of home management to the good of society. She’d pointed to the teaching of home economics, the practice of philanthropy, and the creation of literature as suitable fields in which the college-educated woman might perform service. And there was Florence Nightingale to provide an example of more elevated ambition. But I knew I was no Miss Nightingale.
Miss Dodson, my teacher of home nursing and biology, had held me back after class one day. I’d assumed I was to be chastised for bandaging my friend Lucy’s head so carelessly, but Miss Dodson had pressed me to consider teaching.
“I believe it’s a good thing,” she’d said, unscrewing the limbs from the torso of her mannequin, “for a young woman to make her own way for a year or two before she attaches herself to a man.”
I admired Miss Dodson, with her bright brown eyes and uncompromising nose. She excited in her students—in me, at least—a sense of wonder at the functions of living things even as she exposed their secrets. She’d been afflicted with polio as a child and so walked with a bit of a hitch that seemed to keep time for her as she paced the front of the classroom, urging us to observe: “You must look, girls! Never assume; always examine!” While in everyday conversation she was rather reserved and dry, she had been known to rhapsodize over such things as “the clever lichen, which thrives where other plants would instantly wither.” We giggled, but only the most aloof among us could resist being caught up in her enthusiasm for and devotion to her subject. At her suggestion, I’d imagined myself presiding over my own classroom in a crisp white waist and black skirt, confidently sketching a heart and its attendant arteries with colored chalk on the blackboard.
“Why did you become a teacher?” I’d asked boldly.
Miss Dodson looked slightly startled. She was used, I think, to directing others, not to considering her own feelings.
“I suppose it’s because I liked school. It gave me license to live in my mind.” She gave a small, rueful laugh. “That was a far more interesting place than any other I seemed likely to have access to. Natural history obviously interests you,” she went on, setting the conversation back on terms more comfortable to her.
I did like the way that science, like Latin, seemed to make sense of the world (whereas history and literature, to my mind, were apt to muddle it). When we studied the plant and animal kingdoms, Miss Dodson was always calling our attention to examples of symmetry and efficiency and cooperation. And I dearly loved classification, the neat way in which the most unusual species had features it shared with others and thus could be grouped into a genus, which in turn could be grouped into a family and so on, until the whole puzzle of life, theoretically, anyway, could be clearly mapped.
Perhaps I would never attach myself to a man, I’d pronounced boldly, relaying Miss Dodson’s advice to Lucy.
“You mean like Miss Gregor?” Lucy’s eyes were wide.
I laughed. “Really, you don’t think much of me. Miss Gregor? What about Miss Dodson?”
“Oh, Miss Dodson. Yes, well, she’s a special case, isn’t she? She manages to put all of her passion into her work. Yes, I do admire that. But Trudy.” She’d laid her hand earnestly on my arm. “Don’t you think that she’s a little sharp? She reminds me of one of those crabs that backs itself into a snail shell.”
“And her eyes and forehead bulge so.”
Lucy laughed. “But seriously, I don’t want you to become like Miss Dodson, however much we admire her. That’s not for you, is it? Don’t forget that when you marry Ernst and I marry Charles, we’re going to live next door and run in and out of the back door of each other’s houses.”
The thought of remaining in those schoolrooms or ones like them, passing on what I’d learned to other girls so they could pass it along in turn, made me as weary as all the rest. As a teacher, I feared, I would be making myself into a link in the very chain that was constricting me, holding me back from a future that seemed to shimmer just beyond my ability to perceive it.
What had I wanted? I’d been sure of only thing: I wanted something that I did not know. Well, I’d gotten it.