Wolfsheim's Watch



Ceci Hughes


 
© Copyright 2020 by Ceci Hughes






Cover of The Great Gadsby.

By the time I graduated high school, it was a well-known fact among my classmates that I hated Mrs. Cranston. I guess hate is a strong word, so it’s probably better to say that I strongly disliked Mrs. Cranston. Mrs. Cranston had a full head of short gray curly hair. She always wore long flowy hippie skirts, Velcro sandals, and little wire rimmed glasses that gave the impression she was about to shush you for speaking too loudly in a library. Mrs. Cranston’s favorite topics of conversation were classical music and the many different types of birds that populated the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. She was a powerhouse of knowledge about classic literature and the epitome of how to make a successful career as an English major. In some ways, she exhibited everything I wanted to be when I grew up. But despite all this, I strongly disliked Mrs. Cranston, and to this day, I can trace this strong dislike back to independent reading in November of 2014.

The first time I had Mrs. Cranston for a teacher was in ninth grade English class, and I had started off the year in good favor with her. She liked me because I always did my work on time and was generally interested in reading and writing. I liked her because I loved the subject she taught, and I was a bit of a teacher’s pet. It wasn’t until the end of the first semester that our relationship took a turn for the worse. About a month before winter break, Mrs. Cranston announced in class that it was time to choose our final independent reading book for the semester. I’d always excelled at independent reading and often read more than the required number of books. However, I’d mainly stuck to my comfort zone of young adult fiction, and this time, I was hoping to impress Mrs. Cranston by reading a classic novel. Seeking to win my teacher’s favor, I approached her after class and asked what book she thought would suit me.

Why don’t you read The Great Gatsby,” she suggested, pulling a well-read copy off the communal reading shelf in her classroom. The cover was creased from several years of careless teenagers bending it back, and the spine was held together by a few threads in the middle. I quickly glanced over those mysterious blue eyes on the cover, glimmering over the yellow lights of New York City, and decided that The Great Gatsby looked interesting enough. Eager to please, I snatched the novel out of her hand and thanked her for the suggestion. I shoved the book recklessly into my backpack, inadvertently adding another crease to the cover.

That evening, I rushed home, snuggled up under a blanket on the oversized couch in our living room, and dug into the dog-eared pages of The Great Gatsby. I tore through the novel, discovering it was a quick and easy read thanks to Fitzgerald’s smooth and glamorous writing. Within a few days, I had rushed through the entire book, and I returned to Mrs. Cranston’s classroom with a feeling of pride.

“I’ve finished The Great Gatsby,” I mentioned nonchalantly to Mrs. Cranston after class. I tried to be as casual about it as possible, as if I hadn’t sped-read the book in order to impress her. “What’d you think? Isn’t Fitzgerald’s critique of the American Dream so fascinating?” she questioned. I nodded back, a smile on my face. But in reality, I was scared to admit I was stupefied by her statements about Fitzgerald’s style and confused by her comments about the yellow car as a symbol of the unattainability of Gatsby’s dream. In fact, in my effort to finish the novel quickly, I had barely considered the imagery of Fitzgerald’s words or the depth of his characters at all.

When do you want to do your reading check?” Mrs. Cranston asked, wrapping up her ramble on the themes and symbols of Fitzgerald’s classic novel. The reading check was something we had to do for every book we read for independent reading. We would sit down with Mrs. Cranston and answer a few questions about our novel until she was sure we actually read it. It usually never took longer than ten minutes. We agreed that I would do the reading check after school that day, and so at three o’clock, I climbed up the few flights of stairs to the second floor and wandered into Mrs. Cranston’s classroom. The usual smell of a pine-scented candle floated out of her dimly lit room, and I could hear that she was listening to Tchaikovsky. My heart was jumping about in my chest, my stomach somersaulting across my abdomen. After our chat earlier that day, I was filled with anxiety that I wouldn’t pass the reading check, and I had never failed anything English-related before.

Hi Mrs. Cranston,” I began cautiously, “I’m here for my reading check.”

Excellent, pull up a seat.”

Timidly, I sat down in a rickety wooden chair in front of her desk. Her office was piled high with papers, novels, style guides, and dictionaries, separating my chair from hers with a wealth of knowledge. I tried to gain some confidence as she fumbled around, searching for her grade book in the litter of literature on her desk. Finally she pulled out her book and a pencil, smiled at me, and asked her first question.

What was the color of the light on Daisy’s dock?” With that simple question, my heart began to unwind from the nervousness I’d built myself into before the meeting, my anxiety dissipating. I had read the book closely enough after all; this first question was obvious! Anyone who knew anything about The Great Gatsby would know that the light on Daisy’s dock was green. As Mrs. Cranston plowed on with questions about Wilson’s garage and the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg, I gained confidence. Though I stumbled over my answers a few times, I felt assured that I was acing the check.

Okay Ceci, one more question,” Mrs. Cranston announced, “What did Meyer Wolfsheim have on his watch when he met Nick for the first time in the bar?”

My mind was blank. What? Meyer Wolfsheim was wearing a watch? I leafed through the pages of my memory, searching for snippets of the scene in the bar with Nick, Gatsby, and Wolfsheim. I remembered the character, the way he rigged the World Series, but I definitely didn’t remember any watch. What could possibly be special about a watch anyways? Most of the watches I could picture in my head were simple, with only clear regular watch faces and plain leather wristbands.

After struggling for a while to come up with an answer, I responded with dejection, “I’m sorry, I don’t know.”

The answer was human molars.” Mrs. Cranston swung her gradebook shut and let out her trademark sigh that I would come to learn over the years meant that I had disappointed her. “I think you need to read the book again. It seems to me like you hardly read it.” Incensed and embarrassed, I accepted defeat, grabbed The Great Gatsby, and left the room.

That was the first time I remember strongly disliking Mrs. Cranston. Later in high school, I took AP Literature with her and learned that she could be even more harsh. I learned that she believed any grade higher than an A minus was ridiculous (“nobody’s perfect!”), that most people’s writing was beyond any improvement, and that some people are just bad writers that can’t be helped, those some people including me. By the time I got to college, the thought of turning in any paper filled me with anxiety and dread, thanks to years of being told that my writing was insufficient.

But through all the criticism, tears, and sighs of disappointment, I’ve always returned to that reading check for The Great Gatsby. It seemed extremely unfair at the time that Mrs. Cranston failed my reading check simply because I missed one question (she was wrong about the watch, by the way. When I’ve reread the book over the years, I’ve always marked that Wolfsheim had human molars on his cufflinks, not his watch). But she was mainly right. I really hadn’t read the book thoroughly at all. And in a way, I have her to thank that The Great Gatsby is my favorite book of all time. It was that second read through that I stopped to really soak up Fitzgerald’s language and symbolism and actually learned something about the American Dream in modernist writing. So thanks, Mrs. Cranston. Though I still strongly dislike you, I suppose I really did learn something on your watch.

Many writers and literature lovers I know can look back to a teacher that inspired them to pursue their dreams. While Mrs. Cranston never openly pushed me to become an English major, she helped me learn how to accept criticism and face the fact that I may not always be right. Mrs. Cranston was my ninth grade English teacher, and she and I never really got along in high school. She was the first teacher to fail me on anything English-related, she often gave me bad grades on papers, and she brought me to tears a couple times because my writing was not up to her standards. But now that I’m in college, I’m noticing that many of the things my professors correct in my papers are the same things Mrs. Cranston tried to teach me through her criticism in high school. “Wolfsheim’s Watch” is a piece dedicated to the tough love I received from Mrs. Cranston that shaped me into the writer I am today.

Ceci Hughes is a rising junior at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. At William and Mary, Ceci is an English Language and Literature major and a Music minor. She hopes to go into the publishing or professional editing field after she graduates college. When she’s not reading novels or writing papers for class, Ceci enjoys singing with her friends in the Christopher Wrens a cappella group or playing with her Golden Retriever, Penny.




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