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It all started and ended with Miss Potesta.

I didn’t realize that everyone in my class did not sign up for English IV in my senior year of high school. Later I found out that only three years of English was necessary to graduate, so a lot of my classmates chose not to enroll in English IV.

As a result, I found myself in a room filled with some of the smartest kids in my class. I’m talking academically smart, but I didn’t learn about that distinction until later on in life. Many of the students who sat nearby in the clearly demarcated rows were going to be recipients of Merit and other types of scholarships. Me? I was going to college on my parents’ dime. I graduated in the top 2/5ths of my class but wasn’t aware of this at the time. Rock and roll guitar and girls were much more important than grades. (Substitute jazz for rock and roll, and that’s pretty much the way I feel today.)

If I had to describe Rosina Potesta in one word, it would be imposing. She was a large woman—tall and strong, with striking features, piercing eyes, red lips, and big hair. In fact, these many decades later, it is her hair that I remember best. It was jet black, curly/wavy, and just really big. She wore all black clothes long before it was a fashion statement. I never wondered why Miss Potesta wasn’t Mrs. Potesta—it would have taken a very special man to be her husband.

English IV was a two-semester class, but the only thing I remember from that year was the day she announced that we would be learning the prologue from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Learning, in this case, meant being able to recite—from memory—those lines, in the original Middle English pronunciation.

This turned out to be much more challenging than reciting my Haftara and Torah portion in Hebrew, both of which I had done for my bar mitzvah just a few years earlier. I remember thinking that Hebrew made a lot more sense than Chaucer’s English.

And so it began. Miss Potesta would read one line, and the kid in the first desk in the first row would do his or her best to mimic what was just said while looking at the verses. Here are the first four lines of the Prologue:

Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote

The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,

And bathed every veyne in swich licour

Of which vertu engendred is the flour.

Does that look like English to you?

For some of the kids, it was next to impossible, and frankly I could not understand why. Later I learned that having a musical ear can help with this sort of thing. Probably having learned to read Hebrew didn’t hurt either.

For a few weeks, that was the drill. Thirty kids, going up and down the rows of desks one-by-one, would repeat one line after another. We didn’t question. Miss Potesta’s patience was endless. Obviously, she was on a mission.

After graduating from Wantagh High School, I went to Boston University to study Business Administration. After one year, I had to leave because of illness and lost three semesters. When I returned, I became a Communications major, which suited me much better. It was there that I learned the basics of writing. (The basics of accounting still elude me.)

Fast forward 15 years. I had mysteriously graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with a Doctor of Optometry degree, survived a painful and costly divorce, and found myself once again single, this time in the state of Maryland.

It was during the first couple of years after my divorce that I really started to learn about girls. Numerous meet-ups in pubs, parties, and elevators were the equivalent of another graduate degree.

Before the age of online and speed dating, one method of meeting new people was to place a Personals  ad in one of the metropolitan magazines. What the hell? I tried it, and some of the responses, let alone the meet-ups, were truly bizarre.

Joan’s letter, however, was intriguing. She was clever, erudite, and had nice curvy handwriting. She herself when I met her was slender, energetic, had a bright smile, a bobbed haircut with bangs, two cats (Princess and Casper), and grew her own vegetables, which she actually ate.

We sat on her couch in what is now called a mid-century house, our shoes off, facing each other, and chatted about this and that. As I have learned so many times, one trick that women always play is to ask you questions and keep you talking. So I talked and talked, until I finally realized what was going on.

“So, Joan, tell me about yourself—you said in your letter that you’re a teacher. What do you teach?”

“I teach high school English at Pikesville High School.”

I knew that Pikesville was one of the top academic high schools in the area, and she’d been there a fairly long time.

What do I ask next? “So what are you teaching your students these days?”

A glum, almost depressed look passed over her otherwise cheerful face.

“We’re doing a section on Chaucer. I can’t wait for it to be over.”

Without giving it much thought, the words escaped from my lips as I gazed into the distance:

Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote

The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,

And bathed every veyne in swich licour

Of which vertu engendred is the flour.

When I turned back to look at her, I saw that her jaw had dropped and her eyes were wide open. Of course. She only knew me as a Jewish optometrist on the make. It is an understatement to say that she was in the palm of my hand.

We dated for over a year, and I still think of her fondly.

Some time later, I attended my 15th high school reunion in New York. I had maintained contact with my high school music teacher, Mr. Masciarelli, and he invited me to meet him in the faculty lunch room during his break the day before the reunion. No classes were being held that day for some reason, but the teachers were present.

I felt quite strange, an adult with a beard visiting my old school, interacting with a former teacher as a peer. Other teachers chatted at nearby tables. I asked Mr. Maz, “Are there still any other teachers around who were here when I was a student?”

He looked around, and said, “There’s one: Did you ever have a class with Rosie Potesta?”

Oh my God, Miss Potesta. She was getting ready to leave as I walked over to her.

“Miss Potesta, my name is Robert Schoen. I was one of your students in 1964. You might not remember me, but I remember you.”

She looked at me with an extremely vague glimmer of recognition. “Maybe I do. Come walk me back to my office.” She stood and I looked up at her—she was still at least two inches taller than I, and there may have been some gray in her big, black hair.

As we walked down the dark hall lined with student lockers and still redolent of that high school smell, she seemed preoccupied. Part of my professional job skills include asking questions, and I was searching for the right thing to ask.

“So, do you still teach English IV?”

She stopped in her tracks and slowly turned to me.

“Robert,” she said, her voice tinged with anger, “Wantagh High School no longer offers English IV. There’s no call for it.”

I was stunned. What could I say? And how could I possibly say it? I just did.

“Miss Potesta, I want to share something with you. One time, because I could recite the opening lines of the Canterbury Tales, I got laid.”

She turned to look at me and then smiled. She took my face in her large hands, leaned over, and kissed me on the lips. 

“Good for you!” she said.

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