Mrs. Olds: Fire Lighter


TEACHERS, NOT SCHOOLS, TEACH. If you’re wondering how many pieces of notebook paper it takes to produce a truly impressive spitball, it’s 10, give or take.

Terry was occupying most of the rear corner, busily inserting one piece of notebook paper after another into his mouth. Known for both gross weight and behavior, Terry was larger and older than us; the former the result of being so fond of everything in the cafeteria that he went back again and again, and the latter the result of being so fond of several grades that he went back for those, too.

Mrs. Olds was writing something on the board as Terry removed and shaped the massive mess of a missile from his mouth and launched it. It struck the board with a wet, slippery thud just left of her head. Before the gasp of the class faded, with one smooth move, Mrs. Olds swept the eraser from the ledge, spun on her left foot, planted her right, and delivered a spinning, chalk-dust-spitting frozen rope right between the wide eyes of the amazed Terry. She knew where it had come from, and she knew how to return the favor. He wore that amazed expression all the way to the school office. He may still wear the mark.

Rosemary Olds left a mark.

That throw alone assures her of permanent coolness, but she was cooler than that. She knew some weird and wonderful people, and she introduced us. To Coleridge, his Ancient Mariner and that dead bird around his neck. To the Shelleys, both the precious Percy and the monstrous Mary. To Byron and the Brontë girls. To the brooding Faulkner, his bear and Emily’s rose. To a whole world of carefully chosen words, made immortal by their choice.

Double, double toil and trouble;

Fire burn, and caldron bubble.

We heard it first, a low growl from the back of the dark room. The lights were off and the blinds drawn when we’d entered and found our desks – whispering as you do in the dark, and then going quiet as you do when you hear something dark.

Double, double toil and trouble;

Fire burn, and caldron bubble.

Louder now. Closer. A kind of cackle, a very cold kind. A hunched and hooded figure moved through the room, turning one hand over the other, repeating the dark words over and over, louder and louder.

Double, double toil and trouble;

Fire burn, and caldron bubble.

And the figure flipped the light switch and all the girls screamed – OK – we all screamed. The figure was, of course, Mrs. Olds, the hood was her raincoat, and that was her introduction to Shakespeare’s Macbeth and his witches.

Rosemary Olds lit a fire.

Good teachers light a fire. How long and bright it burns depends on the source of the fuel, but if it’s never lit in the first place, life can be a bleak journey indeed.

I’m a Memphian, and I’d like to thank Mrs. Olds, and good teachers everywhere, for the light.

Dan Conaway is a lifelong Memphian, longtime adman and aspiring local character in a city known for them. Reach him at