Saturday, July 12, 2008
Tulisse Antoinette "Toni" Onstott was my high school history teacher. When she married a local boy, the cowboy son of a famous ranching family who was at the time working as the school custodian, Mike Murdock, she went from being "Miss Onstott" to "Mrs. Murdock."
I loved the sound of her name, Tulisse Antoinette. Very French. Very exotic. There was a little ditty that some of us wrote in the back of a school bus once coming back from one of many long school trips, probably to a basketball tournament or a music festival, to the tune of the children's song "Alouette, gentille Alouette." Her name fit perfectly to the music.
I remember writing a paper for her on "The Heathen Chinee" (Chinese labor used in southwestern Wyoming on building the Union Pacific Railroad line), and participating in many interesting projects and discussions in her classes, debates on welfare reform, and extended school trips to the State Legislature. I also remember a rather uncomfortable moment getting caught passing a note with a friend and classmate (our desks were in a semicircle at the time), and the aftermath of that insensitive lapse in judgment (to this day, I can recall the contents of that note, and her comments following). I wish I had been more interested in history then. I wish she knew how much more interested I am in it now. Still, she apparently had some faith in me, and I remember well her attendance at my high school graduation, where I was valedictorian, and her congratulating me afterwards with tears in her eyes, apparently moved by my speech which was really distinctive only for its brevity.
( I can still remember the high point of that short speech, a quote by Francoise Hardy: "There are so many dreams beyond your night, and so much sunshine beyond your grey walls, but you can't see it because you stay at home. There is so much sky above your roof. Is your door so old that it won't open, or are you staying at home because you're afraid of catching a chill?")
She gave me a record album as a graduation gift. If I'm not mistaken, it was John Denver, probably "Rocky Mountain High." I was touched by her generosity and her kindness on that occasion, and it occurred to me that whatever misdeeds I'd done in her classroom, she genuinely had an interest in me as a person, and yes, it was possible, thought maybe I had some potential.
I left town two weeks after graduation and headed straight for college, and never looked back. Toni, a New Mexico native with a background in social work and aspirations to go to law school, also left Sublette County and moved onward.
I saw some years back that she had become President of Antioch College in Seattle, and more recently noticed that she is now Chancellor of the entire Antioch University system nationwide, and has found herself in the middle of academic controversy spilling out onto the pages of The New York Times.