The Romance of Anna Smith
(copyright 2017 by Marjorie Pagel)
In the only photograph I have of her, Anna Smith stands erect beside the Sheldon School flag pole. A plaid woolen scarf is tied securely under her chin, a blue plush coat buttoned snugly across her ample middle. She is smiling. It’s my memory, of course, not the black-and-white photograph, that registers the coat as blue. Miss Smith wore it outside for recess every day for two years, whenever the temperature dipped below freezing—before romance and marriage took her from our one-room country school.
I was in fourth grade and my best friend, Sylvia Robinson, in third grade the year Miss Smith came to teach at Sheldon. There were only nineteen students, grades one through eight, and Miss Smith genuinely liked us all. Sylvia and I adored her. She would play jacks with us at recess or turn the jump-rope; she would watch us playing with the little kids on the swings or cheer us on when we joined the older boys for a softball game. We in turn helped her: we cleaned erasers, filled the drinking pail with water from the pump outside, or carried in wood from the small shed outside.
Sylvia and I had long since outgrown Cinderella, but we fantasized about romance for our thirty-two-year-old teacher. Her most likely prospect, Chuck Lange, didn’t look a bit like Prince Charming, but this was real life after all, and we were already learning that you had to find romance in the real-life, balding men around you. Chuck Lange was the bachelor farmer who lived with his mother, Nora, on top of the hill just across the road from Sheldon and—this was significant—Anna Smith boarded with them during the week. She didn’t drive, you see, so every Friday after school her father drove the twenty-five miles from their home in Endeavor to the Langes’ house to take her home for the weekend.
All the local matchmakers thought Miss Smith would make a nice catch for Chuck, a quiet man of forty devoted to his farming and his mother, not a drinker or carouser like so many others. Chuck was the one hired by the school board to get the fire going in the woodstove at the back of the school each winter morning, and he was someone to depend on in minor emergencies. Who was to say whether a romantic spark might light up between him and the “schoolmarm”?
Another eligible bachelor in the neighborhood was Otto Zellmer. Like Chuck, he lived with his mother on a farm just down the road from ours, but no one thought of Otto as a real farmer because he liked to sleep late. He had sold off most of his livestock to keep chores to a minimum, preferring to sit on his front porch, smoking his pipe. Otto was also the Sheldon “bus” driver, transporting all the children who lived more than two miles from school in his 1936 Chevy. We three Johnson kids lived just under the two-mile limit; so we walked or biked to school, but the Robinsons rode with Otto.
Otto loved to talk for long stretches with anyone who had the time to keep him company. Sylvia’s mom, Myrtle Robinson, shared Otto’s love of gab, so he used to dally there at the end of his bus route, and that provoked some speculation of a possible romantic liaison between them. Sylvia was indignant toward this kind of gossip, so I quickly learned not to mention the subject to her.
And then Otto gave the local matchmakers something else to think about. He spent less time talking to Myrtle and instead started circling back to Sheldon School when he finished his route. The way I see it now is simply this: a man hungry for conversation will seek it out wherever he can get it. Still, romance between Anna and Otto was a distinct possibility—a possibility that Sylvia and I were perfectly happy to speculate about. We even teased Otto a little, turning the tables on him for all the times he teased us about boys. However, we never thought of teasing Miss Smith or Chuck Lange, never even dropped hints about our romantic intentions for them.
Miss Smith was solidly built—what my mother called “pleasingly plump.” Though no raving beauty, she was attractive and well-groomed. I remember her as a warm, pleasant-natured woman who enjoyed the company of others, young and old. The second year she taught at Sheldon, Miss Smith decided to organize a Community Club open to everyone in the school district. Once, I remember, we moved the desks against the wall and had a square dance. Another time we had a pie and ice cream social, and at one musical talent night my sisters and I sang “Good Night, Irene.”
But the night that brought real-life romance to Anna Smith began with the box social. All the women and girls packed a supper for two inside a decorated box, and all the men and boys who cared to eat that night had to bid on one of the boxes. Grover Jacobson, a bona fide auctioneer, who lived half a mile from the school, proudly took his post and began the event that paired us off. My box was auctioned off early, and I still remember the combination of pleasure and embarrassment from eating chicken sandwiches with George Robinson, Sylvia’s brother.
No one was supposed to know whose box was whose, but when Grover held up the box decorated in pink and white crepe paper with little handmade paper flowers on top, everyone knew that it belonged to Miss Smith. Everyone kept their eyes on Chuck and Otto to see who would win the bid, but it took other voices to get the bidding started. Later, some claimed they saw Chuck nodding yes every time Grover looked in his direction, and others swore that Otto, generally tight- fisted, hung in all the way up to $6.50. My own dad threw in at least one bid, to drive the price up, and my mother chided him later that he might have had himself an expensive supper with Miss Smith.
At the end, though, neither Otto nor Chuck won the honor of sharing Miss Smith’s box lunch. The man who paid $10 and put a stop to all the other bidding on the pink and white box was Norb Hallman, a childless widower who lived by himself on a large farm a few miles north of Montello. He was fifteen years older than Miss Smith, short in stature and slightly hunched.
Initially, Sylvia and I were disappointed that the box social had turned out the way it did, but we still held hope for a rekindling of romance between Miss Smith and Chuck Lange. Eventually, though, when we saw that Norb Hallman was serious about his pursuit of Miss Smith, and that she was cheerfully receptive to his attention, we revised the happy ending of our teacher’s real-life romance. On the days when Miss Smith’s full-length fur coat appeared on a hanger in front of the classroom in place of her blue plush coat, we knew Mr. Hallman would be calling for her after school. Those of us who walked home from school would wave at Miss Smith as she passed by, riding in Norb Hallman’s shiny black sedan. She always waved back.
Several months after the box social, when Miss Smith came to school wearing a diamond ring, Sylvia and I knew that their romance was official. We admired the ring and acknowledged our approval—not with words, but with smiles and blushes. Miss Smith smiled and blushed too.
The following year, when I was in fifth grade, Miss Smith was still teaching at Sheldon, only now she was Mrs. Hallman, which was hard for us to get used to and embarrassing to say. When we sometimes slipped and called her by her maiden name—“Miss Smith, I mean Mrs. Hallman”—she just smiled.
That was her last year of teaching, though. Because the next year she had a baby to take care of. Sylvia and I went to see her and admire little David, but then we pretty much forgot about Anna Smith Hallman. Now she seemed more like one of the other mothers, and that, for us, put an end to the whole notion of romantic fantasy.
The same year, Sylvia’s family bought one of the first television sets in the Sheldon district, and sometimes I went over to her house to watch. In summer we got hooked on Search For Tomorrow and Love of Life and, for the time being at least, that satisfied our lust for romance.