Part of me believes that everyone who creates something wonderful can say they are under the influence of a muse. One definition of a muse is “(n.) a goddess who inspires a creative artist, esp. a poet…” (via Dictionary.com). Not only poets, though, but anyone who creates can say they are under the influence of a muse. Sometimes I feel like I’m in a special zone when I’m cooking something, for example, and I just know that what I’m putting together is going to be great; it almost seems to come from outside me, and I’m just a vessel for the creativity. I feel that way sometimes when I start decorating in my house, and, definitely, I feel it when I’m writing. Some days when I write, a poem seems to flow from my brain and fingers effortlessly, while other days I can’t seem even to write a grocery list. Is there a muse, truly? Do I really have one working alongside me at times?
I don’t recall hearing the word muse used in this way until I was in my sophomore year of high school, when my English teacher Margaret Key Biggs used it and explained it to our class. If I’d heard it before, I certainly didn’t remember it; Mrs. Biggs made a strong impression on me when she explained it, and I believed her when she spoke of it, because Mrs. Biggs was a REAL poet. She had poems published in books. I was in awe of that. She discussed the muse, and told us the term came from Greek mythology. I learned that Calliope was the muse for epic poetry, and Erata the muse for love poetry. Of course, as a teenage girl at the time, I was more into love poetry (Shakespeare) than I was epic poetry (Homer). And we did read a lot of Shakespeare with Mrs. Biggs.
In Mrs. Biggs’ classroom, I remember sitting in a desk in a row near the middle of the room, and just two or three desks back. I had a great view of her animated face as she explained things in her commanding, unique, expressive way. I watched with interest and amazement as she had the self-confidence to apply lipstick in front of the room, barely stopping talking long enough to put it on correctly. (The mouth is important when you are speaking, she would say, and lipstick helps the listener focus on what you are speaking.) She would enunciate, she would dramatize, she would question, and I was paying rapt attention.
On certain days, we’d walk into her room (you had to walk in; if you came bursting noisily in, you would be reprimanded and sent from the room!) and there would be a trolley siting there toward the front, near her desk, and atop it, a record player. We were going to hear Shakespeare’s words dramatized! I secretly loved it. I loved the play Julius Caesar, and listening to it was a pleasure. Some students (mainly boys 😉 ) hated it and couldn’t get past the foreign-sounding speech, but I had been reading so long by then (and I shouldn’t simply say “reading,” as I often found myself practically devouring books that I checked out at the Port St. Joe public library) that the meaning of the words made sense to me in context, and the speaking of them was like music. Mrs. Biggs did that for me. She allowed that into my life by bringing it into her classroom. She inspired me.
I also fondly remember that during my senior year, I believe it was, she took us to Florida State University in Tallahassee to see a presentation of the play Macbeth. She instructed us in the proper way to behave in a theater, and told us how to dress appropriately. It was a wonderfully sensory experience. The costumes were beautiful, and I’ll never forget the three witches stirring the cauldron, cackling out their lines:
“Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn and cauldron bubble..”
It was thrilling. It was moving! I was inspired.
The years have passed. I knew what I wanted to do with my life: I wanted to be an English teacher, and I was. I took my students to see plays every year; dramatizations of The Tell-Tale Heart and Romeo and Juliet, among others. I taught my students how to behave in a theater, and what attire is appropriate for that magical setting. I had them read Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson and Edgar Allan Poe and Harper Lee. I had them write, and write again. I read beautiful classic literature aloud to them. I did not, however, have them memorize the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales in Middle English, as Mrs. Biggs had done with us. I wasn’t quite ready for that challenge, I suppose. She was. Because of her, I was, and still am, in love with writing and literature.
Mrs. Biggs, you were, and still are, my muse. Your memory lives on in your students as you rest in peace, and we give thanks for you.