What separates adults from children? Don’t think of the obvious, age or height. Be creative. What do most adults lose the ability to do? We stop imagining and exploring unusual possibilities. All too often adults are tied down by rules; rules of probability, of logic or fact. Remember when you were a kid? Anything was possible, rules of logic didn’t apply, didn’t confine you and if you found an adult who was able to dream with you or even shock you with their perspectives of fact, then you had found a hero.
In Charles Baxter’s short story “Gryphon” Mr. Hibler’s fourth grade class finds such an adult; the substitute, Miss Ferenczi. Not every student chooses to see Miss Ferenczi as a hero, but Tommy does. As a substitute teacher Miss Ferenczi intrigues, encourages and dares Tommy to stretch his mind and think for himself. Before we can understand Tommy’s fascination with Miss Ferenczi, we must know who Tommy is. Where does he come from? What forces shape his world? Tommy is nine years old.
He has been raised in a small town where everyone knows each other. Tommy knows this town inside and out. When riding on the bus Tommy sees no surprises; he knows “every barn, every broken windmill, every fence, every ammonia tank, by heart” (103). Life is very predictable. In fact, life is so predictable that when Mr.
Hibler becomes ill, the class knows that the substitute teacher would come from “a pool of about four mothers.” (6). Every aspect of life in Five Oaks, Michigan (6) was conventional, expected and truly boring. Therefore Tommy is intrigued when a stranger enters the classroom and introduces herself as the substitute (13). Tommy observes Miss Ferenczi as she whimsically draws a tree on the black board (8), he listens to his fellow classmates as she is declared to be an alien of some sort (10) and he is slowly pulled into Miss Ferenczi’s world as he listens to her talk about her family (14).
Miss Ferenczi wins Tommy’s loyalties during the spelling quiz. Tommy is unable to spell the word “Balcony”(41) correctly and is frustrated with the situation (41). Miss Ferenczi whispers to him that she “[doesn’t] like that word either” (42). Then she goes on to enlighten Tommy with the insightful wisdom that “if you don’t like a word, you don’t have to use it” (42). With one simple remark, Miss Ferenczi empowers Tommy and teaches him a life lesson, to keep trying or to find a different way to achieve your goal.
This life lesson is learned simply because Miss Ferenczi does not correct Tommy; instead she quietly steers him in a different direction. Miss Ferenczi teaches reading from the book “Broad Horizons” (14), and uses every opportunity to broaden Tommy’s horizons. She not only teaches the basics, math, reading, and spelling, but Miss Ferenczi includes lessons of magic and love (90) and lessons about life, death and God (94). Miss Ferenczi tells the class that she “[knows the] children like to hear these things, .. and that is why I am telling you” (93).
By sharing her insight on subjects beyond the normal classroom topics, Miss Ferenczi encourages Tommy to seek out information thereby broadening his horizons. When discussing Egypt, Miss Ferenczi shares her personal story of a trip to Cairo where she saw a creature that was half lion and half bird (65). Miss Ferenczi tells the class “that this monster was called a gryphon” (65). Tommy wants to believe Miss Ferenczi, but he has doubts. So, once he arrives home, he goes to the dictionary and looks up “Gryphon”(88). He is thrilled to read the definition: it’s true, there really is such a creature (88).
The fact that Tommy went home and did research on his own is of great importance. Tommy is faced with the ritual memorization of facts that all students endure. From multiplication tables (18) to facts about insects (139) Tommy is required to memorize the correct answer; learning is not a choice. With Miss Ferenczi Tommy chooses to learn. He decides to go home and expand his mind. Once Tommy begins to seek out or verify information he is able to think for himself.
Tommy is no longer afraid of the unknown or of questioning what he has been taught. The idea that “[six] times eleven, .. is sixty-eight”(18) isn’t upsetting. Tommy realizes that the world won’t stop turning if a fact is substituted with an idea. He is simply doing what Miss Ferenczi told him to do when she said, “[you] are free to think what you like” (40). This newfound freedom allows Tommy to be uninhibited by fear when Miss Ferenczi reads tarot cards.
When a child, Wayne, who is filled with fear and doubt gets the “Death card”(125) he panics and tells the principle. When Tommy learns of Miss Ferenczi’s removal from school he thinks for himself and reacts with violence (136). No longer predictable Tommy has learned Miss Ferenczi’s lessons well. Miss Ferenczi will be remembered by all who encounter her for all her various unique qualities. Some students in Mr. Hibler’s fourth grade class will remember the substitute from “Mars” (10).
Other students will remember the teacher who predicted Wayne’s untimely death (128). Tommy will look in years to come and remember Miss Ferenczi as the teacher who taught him to be an individual, to question everything and to think for himself.