Judy Freedman taught my American literature class at C.B. West in 1989-90. That’s 25 years ago, though it feels like about 10 to me. Since then, I’ve earned a bachelor’s degree in English lit and a master’s degree in journalism. I’ve edited three newspapers and a magazine. I’ve even taught writing at two colleges. Mrs. Freedman remains one of my all-time favorite teachers, someone who made a huge difference in my life as a reader and a writer.
What do I remember about Mrs. Freedman’s class? The big experience was certainly reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece “The Great Gatsby” for the first time. We discussed the symbolism in it endlessly. (I can still recall a lively debate about the meaning of the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg.) We also watched the 1949 and 1974 movie adaptations of the novel. A certain teacher may or may not have spent some portion of that time swooning over Robert Redford. (No major crime, that.) She also let us watch the scene where Myrtle Wilson gets hit by Gatsby’s car over and over. This was the golden age of the VCR, you may recall, and the 1949 film did such a terrible job staging the accident that it left us all in hysterics.
I’ve read “The Great Gatsby” numerous times since, but it has never been as fun and as engaging as that very first experience with Mrs. Freedman.
Mrs. Freedman also introduced us to T.S. Eliot. I’m pretty sure she had us memorize “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” or at least a section of it. To this day, it’s rare that I eat a peach without thinking of that poem and of that class.
Mrs. Freedman was ready to cheer us on when we fell in love with a book or a poem. She also allowed us to express our lack of enthusiasm from time to time. I still recall discussing “The Scarlet Letter” with her. I was impressed that she didn’t try to bully me into liking it. In her classroom, I got the first taste of what my academic life would be like as an English major, though I’m sure I didn’t recognize or fully appreciate it at the time.
What else do I recall about Mrs. Freedman from that era? Long denim skirts, paired with button-down tops. A sarcasm that was rare (or, at least, rarely expressed) among our teachers. And, above and beyond all of that, high standards paired with a real interest in her students and their lives.
Happy birthday, Mrs. Freedman! You made a real difference in my life and in the lives of so many other students. Thank you.