Mrs. Warnell slathered her face with Max Factor pancake foundation. Or something else the color and consistency of silly putty. This was not vanity -- I'm sure she considered it a courtesy. The foundation was an attempt to smooth out some permanent acne scars, fill the pock marks along the cheeks and chin to bring everything up to the same, or at least a reasonably similar, elevation.
The foundation may have also been an attempt to hide a mottled complexion, either that, or she just lacked some basic blending techniques, something we young beauties had known from the time we picked up our first copy of Glamour. But Mrs. Warnell met the world happily, proudly, with a complexion streaked by dusky pink and dun, like a sunset.
However she handled her make-up, it looked good enough to her, and it looked good enough to me. It looked good enough to all the students who loved her.
My friends in high school, we were an untrustworthy lot. I’d write English essays for one friend, who would in turn draw hands for my art class. Some other guy would handle our history or civics lessons, and we just worked those things out, to stay unflunking – it took a village of 20 or so.
As a consequence, when we graduated high school, we left with the very same accomplishments we had brought in the first place. But somehow, we all tested out of high school. Scored well on the SAT’s and ACT’s, and the only explanation I have is that we had been taking IQ tests from the time we could walk. We may not have had the answers, but we sure as hell knew patterns.
But back to Mrs. Warnell. I see her as the flip side of a mean and stupid person with a beautiful face. You kind of sit back and recognize the faults, viscerally yet unconcerned, because the faults pale in comparison to something that’s absolute perfection.
We who aced the English Lit side of high school found Mrs. Warnell romantic. She introduced us to Wordsworth, Keats, Blake, and Shelly, and not just the poetry, but the gossip.
You can only meet the romantic poets once; that’s the case for most of us at any rate. They're voices in your wilderness, and just at the time when you’ve never been more confident and you’ll never be so vulnerable. And you get this horribly beautiful feeling that the freedom you’re seeking is in fact the very freedom you’re leaving behind.
Mrs. Warnell gave us that bit of knowledge. She gave us a kick of nostalgia just moments before we had the legal right to feel it. She gave us pre-nostalgia, let us experience and share what it felt like to dangle from the last rung of the innocence ladder, with no option at all but to fall.
And fall I did. And fall did we all. Except Mrs. Warnell. She was the Mary Poppins of English teachers, with the special power to stay on the ladder even though history would repeat itself the following year. For her, it just never got old.
One time she walked into class and had a cap on her front tooth, at least a quarter inch longer than either of its neighbors.
“I had the most amaything axthident,” she said, “when ironing my blouse thith morning. So you’ll have to pardon the way I say my eth’ethz today, but I didn’t want to mith clath becauth I have thomething very important to share about Byron…”
How an iron came to knock out her tooth is one of life’s eternal mysteries. I try to picture it in my mind to this day. Maybe she was thinking about the Byron story (it was juicy) and brought her hand to her mouth to suppress a giggle, forgetting she was holding two pounds of hot metal. Knowing Mrs. Warnell, that’s a distinct possibility.
For our final class project, my best friend Karen Lawson and I dressed in vintage clothes and took the class outside, under the trees, to read some verse. We hadn’t prepared anything because we had ditched a lot of school. I remember Mrs. Warnell’s comments on our performance, perfectly. “Oh, what a joyous afternoon. Blue skies and a light wind; two lovely girls reciting poetry -- ‘Ah tra-la, now that spring is here.’”
Mrs. Warnell had a mission: To hide the imperfections of life whenever possible, and get on with the business of discovering and heralding beauty.