Miss Martin and Lou Gehrig
Usually on Thursdays in the spring, Miss Martin read Homer’s Iliad to her sixth graders at John W. Daniel School. The windows were raised and we little tykes hoped a breeze would flow through the room. We didn’t have air conditioning in 1950.
Miss Martin favored white tee-shirts all the time and looked exactly like Benjamin Franklin. No kidding. When I look at a $100 bill today, I see her staring right at me. If any of us 30-plus pupils had been caught misbehaving a bit, she didn’t keep us after class, which they could do easily in those days. Instead, she had her own clever punishment – three or four long-division arithmetic problems: dividing long numbers like 899,765,343 by 1487.
This was a challenge to a 10-year-old, especially if you had to turn them in the next morning. We were a bunch of sweet attentive boys and girls, seldom if ever drawing the ire of our teacher who never missed a day.
We loved the Iliad stories as Miss Martin read to us out loud. Usually once a month, she would give a little quiz, not for grades but to see if we were paying attention about Achilles and the Trojan Horse. If we needed a little help with the answers, she could show a soft side and help us.
Miss Martin came to my mind last week during the July 4 homage paid to the great baseball player Lou Gehrig on the 75th anniversary of his famous “luckiest man on the face of the earth” speech. Gehrig was the Yankees’ No. 4, the iron man who played 2,130 consecutive games from June 1, 1925 to April 30, 1939. This record remained for 56 years until Baltimore’s Cal Ripken, Jr., broke it September 6, 1995, eventually reaching 2,632 consecutive games before taking a day off.
On that day, July 4, 1939, Gehrig was forced to retire because of what we know today as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. He died at age 38 in 1941.
In Miss Martin’s class some 59 years ago, I remember vividly as we pulled out the Iliad for our afternoon session. She began in a pleasant reading manner. Today it seems she reached the Trojan Horse part when I slipped in front of my book, the 1942 orange-covered biography of Lou Gehrig. As she droned on, I forgot about the Iliad. I got lost in the story where little Lou went eel fishing for his mother in the World War I era. He’d bring home his catch, his mother would pickle them and then Lou returned to Second Avenue in East Harlem, New York City, to sell the goodies.
I “traveled” that afternoon with Lou as he grew to be a football player at Columbia and then on to became the baseball hero of the Yankees.
Suddenly, I heard a voice, “What page are you on?” Miss Martin roared. Naturally I thought she was talking to someone else. I stuttered a bit, tried to sneak Gehrig back in my lap. She kept on, “Can you tell me about the Trojans?” Fear struck at the moment. My classmates laughed.
In my book that afternoon it was 1932, not with the Greeks. Gehrig had just hit four home runs in a game against the Philadelphia Athletics. The first player to do so in the 20th century.
Miss Martin ordered me to the front of class. She seized my Gehrig book. My penalty was to collect all of the Homer’s Iliad books from the class.
She apparently forgot to give me the long-division problems. The next morning, she allowed us to go to the library. It was Principal Thomas E. Baines who returned the Gehrig book to me. His advice was short and sweet: don’t read it in Miss Martin’s class.”
To this day I’ve never eaten eels.