"The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven, Upon the place beneath" lines from Portia's speech to the court in William Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice
As Jimmy came across these above lines in the epilogue of a book that he was innocently, very innocently, reading about the sources of old time English playwright William Shakespeare’s sources for his various works he suddenly developed a 50th anniversary case of the nerves. And the source of those nerves was easily traceable, very easily traceable, to time spent in Miss Lenora Sonos’ classroom memorizing those very lines of the Bard.
Miss Lenora Sonos, Jimmy’s senior year English teacher made many people nervous. Who was he kidding, she made James Cullen, Jimmy, Class of 1961, and king hell king of the intramural bowling league (boys’ division) at old Clintondale High, nervous. Others can, on their own hook, come forth with their own benighted and heart-rendering testimony but she made him nervous before her class, nervous while in her class, nervous after leaving her class, and nervous in that occasional dark hour just before the dawn when he woke up, woke up with the sweats, became that book report due Monday morning bright and early was not coming together the way he wanted. Come on, again, who was Jimmy kidding, waking up with the sweats kidding, the way that she wanted it. The no rush, no night before it was due , well-thought out and drafted, concise, with some kind of original twist to it paper, and written like some come down from the mountain patriarchal tablet screed, or really an endlessly re-written version of that self-same screed.
And worst, worst than not being concise, worst than not having an original twist idea, was that you had to publicly defend your ideas in front of the whole class. But, once again who was Jimmy kidding, the class was child’s play, putty in his hands once he started throwing his obscure, arcane, in-your-face two thousand facts at them, and they retreated, or better, surrendered, white flags in hand. No, it was her, Miss Sonos, that he had to impress with his obscure, arcane, in-your-face knowledge but here was the rub, she had no surrender, or white flag, in her because she was privy to those two thousand facts, had in fact taught him a bunch of them, and had a few thousand additional ones in her own storehouse just waiting for Jimmy to make that one wrong move, the one wrong move that was inevitably to come from a young, still unformed, mind.
And worst, worst than public Sonos humiliation, worst than being at a lost for that original idea was to not be with her, to be with her one hundred percent, when she spoke, almost in a hushed whisper, of some piece of literature the virtues of which she endlessly drilled into the class, but really had her eyes set on him when doing so, or so he thought. (He found out later that that feeling was shared by every at least half-awake student in the class, the others were just ducking behind some book hoping not to be noticed.) As he thought of those books just now, he remembered the time, trying to be one hundred with her, when he blurred out that Holden Caulfield from The Catcher In The Rye “spoke” to him, spoke to him about his own teen alienation, spoke about what can a kid do when the cards are stacked against him in this cruel old world, a world he didn’t put together, spoke of teen angst in trying to find his place in the sun when everybody was pushing him in about six different ways and he was pushing himself in about seven.
And there Jimmy was, proud as a peacock, feeling like a junior-sized literary critic and then she, Miss Sonos in high dudgeon, lowered the hammer and dismissed the book, and the author, as so much hot air and New Yorker-style cheapjack kids’ short story, barely pabulum. And that was the end of it, for once Miss Sonos pronounced someone a mere short story writer, oblivion beckoned. She much preferred that her Jimmys tackle James T. Farrell, John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, Flannery O’Connor, and Edith Wharton who although they too wrote short stories wrote novels, great novels, and therefore were not assigned to hellish depths. And you know in a funny way Jimmy had to admit that she was right, right in the sense that these other guys had a lot to say and that one should no put all their “literary light” eggs in one basket, although she was still wrong, wrong big time, about J.D. Salinger. Wrong that is if she is not now nearby, nearby this side of the grave.
But the worst time, the worst time of all, for Jimmy who was trying to hold his head up in that dark early 1960s Cold War working poor teen angst night was when she made him write a paper as a proponent of the then front line, flame-burning civil rights movement down South after he had written a short piece, a short diary-like piece, for her eyes only, one time. Not only that but he was going to be forced to argue his case against the editor of the school newspaper, a hot shot who had real literary ambitions and a father who was a professor, or something, over at the university. Now Jimmy, as he noted in his short piece, was in sympathy, secret sympathy, with the struggle of black people down South, and had linked that struggle with his own sense of what white working poor people needed to. Not all that deeply thought out then, but that was the gist of it. But see, the secret part was necessary because the best word, the absolutely best word that he ever heard anybody in Clintondale, young or old, call black people was “nigra,” like the neighborhood, the predominantly Irish and Italian Catholic neighborhood that he lived in, and breathed in, was down South itself.
And the most vitriolic voice around the neighborhood was that of his father, and his kindred, who resided nightly at the Old Gaelic Pub, egging on vicariously, while watching the barroom television news, the Bull Connors of the world. Jimmy tried, tried hard, to explain this all to Miss Sonos but she, unlike in other things, dismissed his pleas out of hand. Well, he gave that presentation, and if he didn’t win the debate points, the precious debate points, that he thought he was fighting for he made it clear that the he was on the other side of the road between the those who lived, thought and acted “nigra” and those who said 1960s “negro.” So there she was right again, although many bridges were burned that day.
As Jimmy nervously finished up musing over the exploits, the maybe un-heroic exploits, of Miss Lenora Sonos, he though about those lines from Portia’s speech to the court in Shakespeare’s The Merchant Of Venice, lines that she made the class memorize, although that memorizing business was not her style in general. And Jimmy chuckled to himself that did not, after all, have to look those sentences in that speech up, although if he was in court he would have to confess that he did look up to see if there was one or two p's in droppeth. He knew those lines and more from the master by heart. And that fact, that fact of remembrance, served to bring up something, something heroic about Miss Sonos. About what she said, said endlessly. Literature matters. Words matter. Jimmy had, on more occasions than he cared to remember, honored those ideas more in the breech than the observance but he tried to be guided by them. But they, no question, were planted there by Miss Sonos.
Thinking on it now though Jimmy realized that he not close to Ms. Sonos, certainly not her "pet". Perhaps she did not even really know who he was, although that bout over the civil rights paper may have turned the tables a little away from the truth of that notion. He did not know about today but back then the classes were very large and there were many minds to feed. So it was possible. Perhaps she did not even “like” him. That too was possible. Jimmy did not display his better side, the "better angel of his nature", in those days, on most days. However, Jimmy did know two things about her-literature matters, words matter. That more than balanced things out, Jimmy thought. And then he said in whisper, “Miss (Ms.) Lenora Sonos, wherever you are-thanks.”