A good deal of psychological understanding of the human animal hangs on the belief that our basic structure and character forms in the first few years of life. These are years, of course, where we have very little direct control over what happens to us, for the character that we develop tends to be a combination of how we were born and our earliest experiences,
Sarah Palin’s second grade teacher, Ms. Evelyn Mergatroid, lends a little insight into the phenomenon of Ms. Palin by recalling her as a young child at the Iditorod Elementary School in Wasilla, Alaska.
Now retired and living a solitary life in a small cabin heated by a primitive wood stove on the outskirts of Wasilla, Alaska, Evelyn Mergatroid has entered a period of self-imposed seclusion since he long-ago student, Sarah Palin, achieved national notoriety as a national spokesperson for marginally thoughtless neo-conservatism.
Having been asked for many interviews, as have most of Sarah Palin’s former teachers, Ms. Mergatroid agreed to this one only after two years worth of repeated requests and written assurances that she would not be held responsible for the person Ms. Palin has become or for the ideas she espouses.
It is a cold, windy afternoon outside of Wasilla when I find her cabin, knock on the door with a cold, numb gloved hand and am invited in. Ms. Mergatroid is a middle aged woman who looks to be considerably older than she really is. She moves and speaks like a woman in her 70’s but is actually in her mid-late fifties.
Life does things to people.
In her sparsely furnished abode, there are two straight back hand hewn wooden chairs facing the wood stove, each has a hand knitted afghan draped on the back or it. She invites me to sit in one and she takes the other. Immediately, we both take the Afghans and cover our laps with them. It is dimly lit in the cabin and the Alaska wind is blowing and whistling under the one door. It is chilly and I get the feeling that it is like this most of the time.
She offers some hot tea which I, of course, accept, and we are ready to begin our interview.
Me: It was very kind of you to agree to speak with me, Ms. Mergatroid. As I am sure you know, there is a great deal of curiosity about Sarah and about how she got to be the way she is. There have been many questions about her as a child and I was hoping you might be willing to answer some of them for me today.
Ms.M.: (in a very quiet, somewhat raspy voice) Sure. If I wasn’t willing to talk with someone about this, I would not have agreed to speak with you. What would you like to know?
Me: Did you know Sarah before she became your student in the second grade?
Ms. M.: Sure. Wasilla is not exactly New York City. Up here, everyone knows (or at least knows of) just about everyone else in town, In fact, her first grade teacher was my sister, Evangeline and she began in Kindergarten with my cousin, Griselda.
Me: Interesting. What kind of things can you tell us about the kind of child she was when she was your student in the second grade?
Ms.M.: Well, she certainly was an interesting child. She has some rather unusual mannerisms and ideas, but when it comes to second grades, the spectrum of ‘normalcy,’ is, as you probably appreciate, rather wide.
Me: Would you be willing to give a couple of examples?
Mrs.M.: Sure. Sarah was often a distractible and distracting student. When asked to do something she didn’t want to do, her responses were rather creative, I thought. She honestly came up with some stuff I had seen neither before nor since. For example, I recall one day when we were going to be working on writing. Sarah didn’t like writing because when she changed her mind about something, which was quite often, she wanted to erase everything and redo it from scratch. Time did not usually allow for this so she went to great lengths to avoid writing at all.
One day, I asked the children to write a sentence about something they believed. I get sentences about God, about fairies, Santa and the love of their parents. Sarah, however, on hearing the assignment, jumped out of her seat, ran to the window, pointed out into the yard and excitedly jumped up and down, proclaiming loudly, “I see Russia! I see Russia!”
On Parent-Teacher night, I mentioned that to her parents. Their response was, I thought, just a tad odd. They said, “We can see Russia from our front porch, too.”
Me: How, as her teacher, did you handle that “I see Russia” avoidance of writing the assignment?
Ms.M.: I let it go. This is a small town and honest criticism and feedback is not always appreciated. It was understood that my job was to educate the children as best I could and to help them feel good about themselves, whether or not their actual behaviors or performance warranted it.
Me: What else can you tell us about Sarah that might help illuminate our understanding of the woman she is today?
Ms.M.: Well, one day we had a Bring-A-Pet-Show-And-Tell Day at school. The children brought their dogs, cats and guinea pigs. One child even brought a goat with a bell around its neck. There are lots of small farms in this area and, because the growing season is so short, they tend to focus on raising live stock rather than growing crops – so we are all accustomed to farm animals.
On that day, Sarah brought a pig to class. That was neither surprising nor inappropriate. What was striking about it, though, was that she has dressed the pig in a tutu and had pained its lips bright red. Some of the other children laughed when they saw it. I recall Sarah responding by accusing the other children of being “Soccer moms in training” and then throwing out a loud “Nah, Nah, Nah!!”
Call me old fashion, but I thought that was just a mite odd.
Me: Did Sarah indicate any interest in leadership back in those days?
Ms.M.: Oh, yes. We had a class election. Each grade had to elect a representative to the Student Council. Three children declared their interest and candidacy. One week before the election, the other two mysteriously disappeared – Their families seemed to suddenly up and move down to the lower 48 on short notice without explanation to anyone. Sarah, of course, won the position by default.
Me: Once on the Student Council, do you recall what she did there?
Ms.M.: Oh yes. The Faculty Adviser to the group was the school custodian, Mr. Jasper and he told me that Sarah spent each meeting smiling. He also mentioned that whenever a subject was raised that invited discussion, she would run to the window and point, jumping up and down, and tell, “I see Russia! I see Russia.”
Me: Ms. Mergatroid, can you say something about why you have been so reluctant to be interviewed about Sarah before this?
Ms.M.: Sure. They had lots of guns in the Palin family and the word on the streets and snow drifts was they knew how and were not hesitant to use the. Now, I figure that she is so well known that she is unlikely to try to have me ‘vanished.’
But, I am afraid it is about time for a nip and a nap – both things I prefer to do alone. So if there is nothing further,
Me: OK. I appreciate your time and have just one more question for you Ms. Mergatroid. Do you think Sarah would make a good President for this country?
(At that point, my until-then willing interviewee rose and gestured me to the door, opened it and saying only;)
Ms.M.: Enough. You are a journalist. Let your readers draw their own conclusions.
(She opened the door and invited me to leave. I did so.)
Someday, I may actually visit Alaska.