The Tyranny of Mediocrity

Mrs. Casey, my senior year English teacher, always worried me. She was a graduate of Brown University and was teaching at a poor urban school, the vast majority of whose students would not attend college, let alone an Ivy League school. She dressed primly with her collar always buttoned to her neck, and referred to her husband as her “darling Arthur.” She probably should have been a New York editor, but there she was teaching Return of the Native to the bored boys and girls of Hope Street High School. I worried for her for because even though she was physically a sturdy woman, I sensed she lived on the edge of a mental collapse. She would from time to time use the classroom as a forum for her grievances with The World. First, modern America was suffering from a “tyranny of mediocrity.” This was her own phrase, and I must have heard her use it a dozen times that year. Second, she felt the word “tragedy” was used far too loosely. Hamlet, she said, was a tragedy; Oedipus was a tragedy. A 100-point dip in the stock market was not a tragedy. I had to agree, but I also had to wonder, “So what?”

Still, the times I worried most for Mrs. Casey was when she would talk about her “darling Arthur.” She was just so genteel, Mrs. Casey, in her plaid skirts and her sprayed hair. I appreciated her gentility – her propriety and her vocabulary – but it was all so quixotically out of place, and it seemed that the strain to maintain it was going to break her.

The last time I saw Mrs. Casey was two years after I had graduated. Hope’s football team was going to be playing for the Class B State Championships, and my father suggested we go watch. There she was, in the same skirts, the same sprayed hair, standing on the sidelines with three young students who were videotaping the event for her Communications Class. I came down out of the bleachers and said hello.

“How’s it going?” I asked.

She shook her head and winced. “The same, Bill.  It’s a tyranny of mediocrity.”

This is what she said to me – while behind her the boys of Hope High were busy becoming State Champions.

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