Mrs. Tilden Suffers a Meltdown

“OK class… here are your parts for today. Gifford you’re Caesar. Martin you’re Antony. Jean-Margaret you’re Calpurnia. Elizabeth you’ll be Portia. Gaylord… Cicero. Lawrence… Brutus. Tall Simon… Cassius. Red Hair Simon… Casca. And Fitzhugh, you’re Titus Vestricious Spurinna the Soothsayer…”

Say what you will… but each of us moves to the unique rhythms of the seasons and the comings and goings of the moon’s phases. Some of us are less tuned in to the seasonal changes and the lunar cycles. But few who could be more ruled by the time and day of the year, than Agnes Tilden, Class of ’16 Mount Holyoke, Summa Cum Laude in English Literature, and a Fifth Grade Teacher at The Middlesex School. You could tell it was October, early in the school year, because without variation, year after year, after year, she would regale her class with Washington Irving’s tale Legend of Sleepy Hollow. She found great satisfaction in reading aloud to the class… sharing a classic piece of American Literature. To help enact the scenes, she would enlist students to portray the roles of Ichabod Crane, Brom Bones and Katrina Van Tassel. If she had her druthers, she would have turned off the fluorescent lights with their annoying hum, and bathed the room in candlelight.

Beginning after WWII, every November a class trip to Old Sturbridge Village would be organized. You could count on it, just as you could count on the students’ amazement at the size of the one room District School.

December was the time for Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Reading to the class she expressed Scrooge’s skepticism at seeing the ghostly apparition of the deceased Jacob Marley, “You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato.”

Marcia Peterson, the Sixth Grade Teacher, would say, “You could fall into a coma for ten years, awaken, walk into Aggie’s classroom and tell what month it was, and probably the day, by what she was reading or doing with her class.”

March was the month for Shakespeare. And it had to be Julius Caesar. You could count on it.

“Class we are in Act I, Scene II… Gifford you begin.”

CAESAR: Calpurnia!

CASCA: Peace, ho! Caesar speaks.

CAESAR: Calpurnia!

CALPURNIA: Here, my lord.

CAESAR: Stand you directly in Antonius’ way, when he doth run his course. Antonious!

ANTONY: Caesar, my lord?

CAESAR: Forget not, in your speed, Antonius, to touch Calpurnia; for our elders say, the barren, touched in this holy chase, shake off their sterile curse.

ANTONY: I shall remember: When Caesar says ‘do this’, it is perform’d.

CAESAR: Set on; an leave no ceremony out.

“Fitzhugh? Fitzhugh, you have the next line….”

“Mrs. Tilden… what’s a Soothsayer?”

“It’s a person who makes predictions about what will happen in the future, and then makes a public pronouncement…”

“I get it. Like my Dad, when he plays golf with my Uncle Colin and he tells him that if he uses a 7 iron on the Par 3 Second Hole, he’ll put his tee shot into the pond. And Uncle Colin ignores him, saying that my Dad was just messing with his head, and sure enough Uncle Colin plunks his ball into the water a good 15′ short of the green!”

“Fitzhugh… that’s a charming story. But within the context of Julius Caesar, a soothsayer refers to a person who has a natural gift, and the wisdom to see into the future. Maybe more like a fortune teller, or an Oracle, and it was serious…”

“Well, it sure was serious with my Uncle Colin. He told my Dad that he just lost his favorite-good-luck golf ball, and that if my Dad didn’t shut up, he was going to take his putter and hit him on the coconut with it!”

“It sounds like your Uncle has anger management issues…”

“You can say that again. My Dad is always telling him that he picks the wrong ‘horses’. My Dad explained to me that ‘horses’ is just an expression… and that it referred to picking bad stocks, backing bad political candidates, and being miserable at choosing wives. One time, when Dad told him that the person he voted for was a jerk, Uncle Colin threw his gin ‘n’ tonic against the wall!”

“Yes… let’s return to the play. Fitzhugh, it’s your line.”


CAESAR: Ha! Who calls?

CASCA: Bid every noise be still: peace yet again!

CAESAR: Who is it in the press that calls on me? I hear a tongue, shriller than all the music, cry ‘Caesar!’ Speak; Caesar is turn’d to hear.

SOOTHSAYER: Beware the ides of March.

“Mrs. Tilden… I have a question. What are ides?”

“Fitzhugh… it means the mid-point day of the month. And the mid-point in March would fall on the 15th day. Back in those days, it was a way that they marked the calendar. Gifford, it’s your line.”

CAESAR: What man is that?

BRUTUS: A soothsayer bids you beware of the ides of March.

“Mrs. Tilden I have a question.”

“What is it now Fitzhugh?”

“Mrs. Tilden. I was born on February 15th… does that mean I was born on the ides of February?”

“No, Fitzhugh. And I know it may sound confusing… but ides falls on the 15th day of March, May, July and October. In the other months ides falls on the 13th day.”

“Mrs. Tilden, this is so confusing. Ides of March? Why not just say March 15th? Why didn’t Shakespeare just write, ‘Watch yourself on March 15th’, or ‘On March 15th be careful’, or ‘Pssst! Caesar! March 15th will be a very bad day for you.’ This ides stuff, it could be the 13th or the 15th… you know, how was Caesar supposed to know. Unless Shakespeare had the soothsayer tell him exactly what it meant.”

“Fitzhugh, enough. Caesar knew exactly when the ides of March was. As we will see, he chose to ignore the warning. Gifford, your line.”

CAESAR: Set him before me; let me see his face.

CASSIUS: Fellow, come from the throng; look upon Caesar.

CAESAR: What say’st thou to me now? Speak once again,

“Mrs. Tilden… I don’t like Shakespeare. He uses all these strange words and expressions. Ides? Who in the world talks like that anyway? It’s too difficult to understand, and that’s why no one likes to read Shakespeare. We all hate reading him… ask anyone in the class. Even my Mother has trouble understanding Shakespeare and she went to Sarah Lawrence! And everyone in the play has funny sounding names. Well, not Caesar. The golf pro at my Dad’s Club is named Caesar. But everyone else. And Caesar? I can never remember if it’s “a” before “e”, or “e” before “a”… and I know you mark off for things like that.

ENOUGH, Fitzhugh!! Fitzhugh, it’s your line!”

SOOTHSAYER: Psssst! Caesar! Watch your back on March 15th!

“See? Isn’t that better? Gifford didn’t you understand what I was saying? Maybe if I said it that way to begin with, I wouldn’t have had to repeat myself so many times.  And Mrs. Tilden, I have such a stinky part in this play. No one listens to me. I hate Shakespeare! I will never be able to remember how to spell Caesar, and my parents are already telling me that they want me to go to an Ivy League school! Mrs. Tilden, how can I ever get into Yale if I can’t spell Caesar… and if I’m given crummy parts in the play? And my Dad says if I don’t get into Yale I will probably end up waiting tables at Howard Johnson’s! I mean, Howard Johnson ice cream is OK; but I can’t take all this pressure!”

“This behavior is unacceptable! UNACCEPTABLE!! Waiting tables at Howard Johnson’s will be a big step up from where you’re going young man!!!”

The day after school let out for summer vacation, Agnes Tilden handed in her letter of resignation to the Headmaster of The Middlesex School. No reason was given. When asked about it, Marcia Peterson, perhaps her best friend on the teaching staff, would say, “I think she saw that it was just time to go. Just time to go. Aggie knew that she had no more to give.”

The day before summer vacation began in that year of 1960, Mrs. Tilden took me aside and said, “It’s ‘a’ before ‘e’, just like it is in the alphabet… that’s how I learned to remember it.”

I did not go to Yale. I didn’t even apply. Rather I traveled to the tiny burg of Gambier, Ohio where I attended Kenyon College and graduated in 1971, cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in American Literature. As fate would have it, my junior year I was cast for the part of Brutus in the campus production of Julius Caesar.

Caesar was never a favorite play of mine. Although I have seen King Lear at least a dozen times, including two performances with Morris Carnovsky in the lead. If it were playing nearby, I would see that play tomorrow.

A Chinese poet once said, “life travels in circles.”

So it does. And each December I gather those who care to listen, to the comfort of my den, light a cheerful fire and open my volume of Dickens to read aloud…

“Marley was dead: to begin with. there is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.”

I read every word. Every December. You can count on it.

— F. John Clarke

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