When I first began top read about the Gideonites and their
mission to bring education, religion, and medical care to the slaves of South
Carolina, I did not focus on any one individual. In fact, I saw the group as a whole and
assumed they acted with a single purpose.
Eventually I ran up against clear evidence that a great deal of
infighting was going on and I realized that these people had varied interests.
Their diversity, however, made them hard to deal with. I needed a strong character as the focus of
my research. There were many candidates,
but eventually I chose to tell the story of Laura Towne. Why? Because she was a misfit.
As the middle child in a family of seven, she received
little attention growing up. She was too
young to accept responsibility but too old to be “taken care of.” That role
seemed to carry over into her adult life, as her siblings alternated between
lecturing her about her weaknesses and relying on her strengths – and resenting
She grew up in an era of evangelical religious fervor, but
her family attended the Unitarian Church, which valued restraint and logic rather than passion. That alone made her stand out in the normal
day-to-day life of Philadelphia, but Laura’s own value system brought her
additional attention when she became strongly attracted to the abolitionist
Abolitionists were never popular. Her association with them did nothing to help
Laura’s own isolation.
Girls of the upper
and middle classes were expected to become happily married wives and mothers,
interested above all in taking care of their families. Laura hated the very
thought. She was distantly fond of
children, so long as after a while their parents whisked them away. She did not dislike men but could not imagine
ever being subservient and obedient to one of them. Courtship did not interest Laura, nor did the
socially accepted feminine charms by which a lady was expected to attract a
suitable husband. Laura gratefully
accepted spinsterhood as the better alternative.
Education beyond the rudiments was usually deemed unnecessary
for a girl. But books wooed Laura with an attraction that a man could never
have provided. Laura longed tor
scientific knowledge and dreamed of becoming a doctor. She enrolled in one of
the very first medical schools for women but rebelled when she discovered that
she could only read the texts. Clinical
experience was closed to her because society believed it was improper for a
woman to see a man’s body. That limitation sent Laura off on yet another
tangent, exploring the strange world of homeopathic medicine because
traditional medical studies were beyond her reach.
So there she was – an abolitionist spinster who practiced
the mysterious rituals of homeopathic medicine. She chose to travel to an
unknown part of the country in the company of
an equally unknown group of people
rather than to stay close to her family. She chose another woman as her
lifelong companion and settled down at last with a house full of adopted black
children. Fascinating. Her story cried
out to be told.
Growing up, I always had trouble fitting in with those around me. I was too near-sighted to play ball, and too uncoordinated to ride a bike. I even got kicked out of a tap-dancing class at the age of five. The teacher pulled my mother aside and suggested, “Take her to the library on Saturday afternoons instead of bringing her here. We’ll all be happier.” Without effort, I got the highest grades in my grade school class and the highest scores on all those standardized tests. What an irritating kid I must have been!
I started teaching high school English when Iwas barely twenty-one, but the job aged me rapidly. Not that it was hard—the kids were great. But other people? Not so great. I was shocked the ﬁrst few times I received a strange reaction when my husband introduced me to his friends and colleagues. The conversations would go something like this:
- “Hello, I understand you’re Lt. Schriber’s wife.”
- “Yes, hi, I’m Carolyn.” (big smile, hand extended, eager to please).
- “How are you settling in?”
- “Just fine, thanks, although we may face some minor bumps when I start work next week.” (a little shrug)
- “Oh, you work? What do you do?”
- “I’m going to be teaching English at (local) High School.” (proud and excited to have found a job)
- “Oh.” (new person makes rapid escape, leaving me standing there feeling abandoned.)
The “Oh” was often followed by one of several responses:
- “Excuse me, I’m needed in the kitchen.”
- “I always hated English.”
- “You don’t look old enough to be an English teacher.”
- “I thought they were all elderly ladies with warts on their chins."
- “Oh, dear, now I’ll be afraid to talk to you.”
- “You’re going to correct my grammar, aren’t you?”
You get the idea. People shied away from me if they were self-conscious about a lack of education, or they shunned me if they had had a bad school experience. I even considered lying about it and saying I was a home economics teacher, until I realized that then no one would ever invite me to dinner. In the 60s, many people feared teachers or actively disliked them. I’d have been much more popular if I had been a shoe clerk.
Still, I have been a misfit for most of my life, and it
took me a long time to realize that those who don't fit into their
society are often the most interesting people around. It amuses me now to find that strangers react with interest and curiosity when they hear that I’m a writer. Actually, they should be even more afraid. As an English teacher, I don’t think I ever corrected someone’s grammar outside of the classroom. But as a writer? I’m constantly on the lookout for people with funny quirks, odd mannerisms, or interesting stories. And the danger of ending up in one of my books is much greater than that of getting your fingers slapped for misusing a verb tense.