(Today is a departure from the novel…I couldn’t link to a planned zoom write-in session Janis offers through Lit Camp and was thrown into an unexpected emotional tailspin. So, time to change it up!!)
Melody wrote a beautiful piece about her third grade music teacher this week. Are we all so lucky to have that one teacher who inspired a lifetime of dreams? Mine was Mrs. Wright in 4th grade who, when teaching us about similes and metaphors, singled out me, a painfully shy kid with a truly unfortunate short haircut. To this day, my writing inspiration mirrors those moments. First, I identify the emotion. Or rather, let it sit in the center of my chest. Then, I allow an image to grow. (Today: Frantic as a fly banging against the summer screen yearning for the sugar bowl on the windowsill.) And somehow, today I hear Mrs. Wright again, I see her surprise and delight that this previously unfathomable girl had finally revealed herself.
Which brings me to the teacher who shut it all down. New to the school in 2nd grade after a move across our New England town, young for my grade, and grappling with the distractions of another new baby in our house, I was as ill prepared for Mrs. Mean as a six year old dropped onto a battlefield.
Elementary school in the early sixties mirrored the dying 50’s culture: conform to the rules, raise your hand before speaking, dresses for girls, pants for boys, alphabetically assigned seats and life run by the sweep of the second hand on the white faced clock.
Mrs. Mean was ancient. Older than my Nana. She had cat-eyed glasses and thin bony arms. I never knew her face, or maybe my memory has thrown up a protective scrim, a gauze dressing over the bloody gash. She taught me to shut down when she approached, a still self-injurious coping skill that crushes my thought processes at critical moments—the SAT, public readings, meeting new people. Because when she stood from her desk, when she rounded the corner and entered your row, when she saw your first-ignored hand raise refusing to bend, refusing to return to where it belonged in your lap, her approach meant her fury was unleashed. You had unleashed her.
And your mighty transgression? The thing she could not would not abide?
A raised hand asking permission, to ask, beg, demand and plead for dispensation to use the bathroom. A six year old who had been sitting at their assigned desk in their blue cotton jumper for two hours, twenty minutes after lunch of a pint of USDA whole milk, a bowl of orange tomato soup and a juicy orange. Who could not hold it for another hour, half hour, 15 or even.
One more minute.
Most kids, all the boys, peed the chair.
It was some time later that Massachusetts passed a law forbidding the practice of withholding bathroom breaks to small school children. But in the early sixties, our conformist law (and teacher) abiding parents would not challenge their absolute power over the classroom. Or lives.
The horror of the smell, the stream of the urine spreading over the linoleum toward neighboring desks, the crunched up face of the boy trying hard not to cry, and the explosion of Mrs. Mean, was more terror than my six year old soul could handle. Not only did my brain shut down for two years until 4th grade, but by some miracle my urinary system did as well.
We pass laws for behavior that seems bizarre in retrospect, we want to protect our children from these Mr and Mrs Means, we hope no child will ever have to visit there again.
And yet, through my husband’s work teaching Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics and my own coordinating services for children with special health care needs, I know that we cannot legislate away mean. We cannot mandate kindness. The US education system is a vast wonder, with amazing men and women who change lives.
And every child, every every child, has had a Mrs or Mr. Mean, every child has been denied the most basic of human dignity. We are taught to fear, we learn resilience. We are taught to shut down, and we find a way to open up again. One word, one look. And I’m given a place I return to for the rest of my life.