Recently I was encouraged to retrieve my old class pictures from Delhi Public School, the grade school where we got our first taste of reality.
You see, on Facebook, there is the group site opportunity to tag your old home town, and to ping all those folks from long ago. The operative phrase is, “…do you remember when?”
Pulling out the 1957-58 5th grade class picture stirred up a tsunami of remembers, not the least of which was the lady who was our teacher that year. Call her Pearl.
A feisty woman, she ruled the class with an iron hand, attached to a wrestler’s arm, driven by the righteous morality of a battalion of angels and archangels which were in immortal combat for the possession of our souls. For a 9-year-old, the stakes were not so much salvation, as merely ducking her swing with her hickory stick.
Pearl was a motivating force that kept us in our seats, eyes in our books, when not furtively glancing about like dogs listening for the sound of a rolled up news paper.
A classmate just wrote me, “She tried to put the fear of God into all of us, but I had much more fear of Pearl, than I did of all the gods put together. She was a holy terror with the pointer and the strap.”
Indeed for the smallest infraction, Pearl would swoop down the aisle, stick raised into a ballplayer’s grand slam swing, and bring it down smartly across an arm or a back. She had a knack for avoiding the knuckles, probably deferring to the nuns’ specialty at St Francis School across town.
But she had her good humor too. Daily we would submit our workbooks to her for marking, and next day, she would stand at the front of the class, and lob them, frisbee-style across 7 columns of school desks to our waiting hands. Those were light moments, in contrast to the darker ones.
Of course, the most feared instrument was the strap. She never threatened with it, but on the one occasion that she committed to use it, we were transfixed in our seats as she marched “Ben & Jerry”, not their real names, out of the class and into the hallway. Out there, out of sight, under the supervision of the principal, she administered numerous swings of scholarly rectitude down on the calloused hands of the two boys.
For us, inside the class room, it was like seeing the lights dim for a moment when the voltage was turned on.
Then moments later, Ben and Jerry returned. Ben was sniffling a bit, but not crying. Jerry, who was the older by 3 years, was white in the face, but stern and disgusted. From that day on he was my hero. He embodied true moxie, a guy’s guy, even if he was a chronic trouble maker. I admired his guts. I bet he’d gotten worse at home.
For me, pushing 60 pounds soaking wet, I was constantly in fear of Pearl’s stick. One day, after she had wound up a little too tight, she broke her cudgel over a boy’s back. After the shock of it wore off, we nervously stifled a laugh while she picked up the broken weapon. “Hurray! No more stick!”
Wrong. Pearl reached into her closet, and extracted a new pointer. A little more slender, but 36 inches long, with a black rubber tip for pointing.
Within a day, the pointer was out in the air, flailing some poor sap for his writing, or arithmetic. After that, the rubber tip popped off, and shot across the room like a bullet.
The kid is wheezing, staring bug-eyed at his work book waiting for the next flogging. Behind him, not missing the opportunity, the smallest, most obsequious guy in the room, smart, but not canny, stutters out helpfully, “Mrs. Pearl, ah aha,ah,ah, your rubber tip f-f-fflew off your your pointer.” We all groaned.
Pearl would not be impressed with today’s teaching aids. Pointers, for one. The wooden stick is pretty much gone, though you can pick up little one-footers with cartoon fingers on the ends, much like tiny back scratchers. Pearl may have gravitated to the new laser pointers. Good up to a hundred feet, she could cauterize the retinas of any truant in a nano second.
Grade 5 was the year that we studied grammar in earnest. “Using Our Language” was the name of the text. It was a dreary book that drilled us on adjectives and adverbs, prepositions and conjunctions, compound sentences and subordinate clauses that modified God-knows-what. Every day Pearl assigned us homework from the text with 10 problem sentences identified as A. through J.
I will die with the memory that the tenth letter of the alphabet is a J.
J for me however, was a bridge too far. I hated the homework, didn’t understand it, and invariably, would grind to a halt around F. For days I had submitted my homework book, and every day, Pearl would frisbee the book back to me. No words were spoken, no warnings or admonishments.
I knew that my days were numbered. I cringed in fear of that pointer, or worse yet, the strap. I wouldn’t be the brave kid like Ben & Jerry. I would be a miserable little suck, I knew it. So, I practiced. At night I would strap my hand with my belt. Didn’t really put my heart into it, but I tried. Heck, it hurt! Every morning, I carefully padded my arms with cotton batten, held in place with rubber bands. If she came at me, they would cushion the blow, I hoped.
And like time, tide and taxes, that day did come.
“Philip! Come here!”
She sat at her desk at the back of the room, like the eagle’s nest, where she could stare at the backs of the bobbing heads and noggins of the town’s future mayors, teachers, nurses and milkmen. I scurried up to the side of her desk.
“Yes?” She had my workbook open, staring at a scrawl of jumbled thoughts, terminating around E or F .
“Look at this, Philip! What do you see? Here! Right here!” I came in closer to the desk, and stared at her lacquered fingernail, pointing like a sharpened dagger at a smudge in the lined book. “Look at it !! What do you see? Look closer!”
I knew this was it, and for an electric moment, I thought about those protective cotton battens on my arms, and how I was going down. I bent in closer to look at her finger. It is angrily pulsing pink and white from pressing the page.
I am bent almost double from the waist, squinting at the page whose blue lines are shimmering before me, and then– “WHACK-WHACK-WHACK!”
She got me, right across the butt. Like a new sergeant, I went back to my desk with three fresh stripes.
I laugh at the time now, but it was a major event back then. In fact, not only do I laugh, but honestly, I am thankful. I never submitted a shoddy workbook again. I accepted A through J. What’s more, I went after the entire alphabet after that, upper and lower case.
Thankfully, she did teach me to read, and to write.