Walter Mencken 11 a.m., Aug. 29
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Harkening back to my grade school years circa the 1970's, there appeared to my wee mind to be two distinct styles of teacher - young and old. The young ones were cool. For example, my second grade teacher, Ms. Harrison, showered me with praise and on my report card where it says "gets along and plays well with others" she wrote "too well." Imagine my chagrin when she came back from vacation with a new name. Mrs. March. I was devastated. How could she do this to me, her favorite student? Who was this awful Mr. March who replaced me in her affections?!? I could kill him. I eventually got over my jealousy, but rest assured, it wasn't the same. Ms. Garrison, my fifth grade teacher, was blond and pretty and wore mini-skirts with boots. It always seemed like the male teachers would make excuses to pop into our class and ask it they could speak with her for a minute. There was an exception. My sixth grade teacher, Ms. Maher, also wore mini-skirts, but she looked like she applied her make-up with a trowel and her breath reeked of cigarettes and coffee. In the hall, she would flirt outrageously with the good looking Mr. Paterno, another sixth grade teacher, but back in the classroom she would hiss at us and throw erasers. She was a skank, and she was mean.
Then, there were the old ones. In Highland, N.Y., where I attended grade school, there lived two spinster sisters who were employed by the school district. The Gaffneys. One was "third grade Gaffney", the other, "fifth grade Gaffney". Although their formal title was "teacher", I firmly believe these bitter old bags were put on this earth solely for the purpose of robbing young girls of their precious self-esteem. One was named Gertrude and the other Mildred. I kid you not. You really cannot get more biddy than that. They looked identical, each sporting yellowish hair, pale blue eyes, dentures, support hose and those ugly all-purpose leather shoes similar to what nurses wore before Crocs, only in black.
They had a reputation, and they earned it. Every second and fourth grader, come the end of the school year, would open their final report cards with a combination of anticipation and dread. "Please don't let it be a Gaffney, God, please, I'll be good. Don't let it be a Gaffney!!" Clutching my own final card in my little second grade hands, staring down at the name of my assigned teacher for the third grade, I felt an outrage that only the wrongly convicted recognize. THIRD GRADE GAFFNEY! Why did Mrs. March do this to me? Everyone knew that your previous teacher had a hand in selecting who would be your next grade instructor. I wanted to cry out to her "Only discipline problems got a Gaffney! I am not a discipline problem, Mrs. March, I'm your favorite!!", but I was on the verge of tears and too scared to find out the answer to why this injustice was happening to me. Rallying around me, the other kids asked, "who'd you get, who'd you get?" Unable to articulate the unspeakable, I held out the card so they could see for themselves. "Oh, sorry," was all they could manage after their initial recoiling. Not a single one of my friends had been assigned to her. Back then teachers routinely split up friendships by assigning students who were buddies to different classes, but this was beyond my seven year-old comprehension, before the harsh reality that life isn't always fair made its home in my psyche.
On the bus home, everyone was screaming and yelling, excited to be let out of school for the summer, but I just sat there. My older sisters were on the bus too, and would not stop tormenting me with dire predictions of things to come. From my oldest sister, Mary Jo, who had the misfortune of surviving fifth grade Gaffney, "I heard she hits kids!" Middle sister Kathy, eyes large, nodding her head, adding, "She'll hold you back if she doesn't like you!" My mother, later that evening, after reviewing my final grades: "It will be good for you. You could use some discipline." No sympathy there.
Summers in the Hudson Valley were ideal for a kid when I was growing up. The trees were laden with apples and perfect for climbing, the lakes and reservoirs open for swim lessons and the streets safe enough to ride our bikes anywhere. The adults were always bitching, "The humidity, the humidity." We had an idea of what that was, but we didn't care. It was obviously a problem, but it was their problem and we wanted it to stay that way. At night we caught fireflies in jars and made sure to poke holes in the top, but come morning they would all be dead. This did not deter us from imprisoning the next batch. But all of this was tainted that summer by my fear of the school year to follow. Come to find out, justifiably so.
It started out well enough. I tried to fly under Mrs. Gaffney's radar, having already witnessed some of the more grievous acts of punishment inflicted on the poor dumb kids foolish enough to step out of line. Mind you, this was the '70s, and back then a much different teaching environment was in place. This was not like today, where there are no losers. George Carlin summed this up pretty well in his routine about our current overindulgence of children's feelings. "Don't cry little Johnny. You're not a loser, you’re the last winner." But I was a social kid, and eventually I could no longer hide my personality. I got labeled "disruptive", and became a target for her wrath.
She did random desk checks. Remember those old desks where the top was at a slant so you could write on it and lift the hinged top to store your books and other supplies inside? If yours was a mess, she would tip it over, spilling the entire contents onto the floor, and make you clean it up while everyone watched. If you knelt in your chair with your butt sticking up in the air, she would smack it with a ruler, hard. If you were not paying attention, she would come up behind you and drop a stack of books on the floor. These were all stealth operations. You never saw it coming, so not only would she humiliate you, she startled the crap out of you. Another thing she enjoyed doing was making you stand in the corner in front of the class facing the wall if you talked to another student. I spent a lot of time in the corner, facing the wall.
It finally reached crisis mode when I suddenly started getting out of my chair and would walk to the chalkboard and just start writing. She'd look at me with her rheumy eyes, enraged at my insolence, unable to control me. I don't know why I started doing this. Yes I do. I hated her. One time, I put a tack on her chair. When she stood up, it was stuck to the back of her dress. Between her granny panties and support hose sausage-cased in by her girdle, it never stood a chance of penetrating through to its intended target.
The school called my mother. We don't know what to do with her. She won't stay in her chair. She constantly disrupts the class. They scheduled a parent-teacher conference, which I was required to attend. My mother was not at all pleased with having to go to the school, at night, to discuss my "problems". After the phone call and prior to the conference, I got the crap beat out of me by my step-father because I was "bad", this same penalty having been imposed on me when I performed surgery on my stuffed lion to discover the source of his ability to talk. At the conference, "Why are you doing these things?" they wanted to know. All adult eyes were upon me. Face burning, scared to death, my feeble response was, "I'm bored". A collective gasp arose from the adults.
Come to find out, I was always done with my work way before the other kids were. I was ahead of them academically because I read so much. My crimes were the result of being too social, too curious, maybe a tad too independent. All qualities you want in your children, and all felonious offenses. Discussion ensued about skipping me a grade, but my mother didn't think that was a good idea. She might become too big for her britches, too smart for her own good, that sort of thing. They finally settled on a remedy; when I was through with my work, I would tutor other students who were struggling. I received this news with a mixture of pride and hurt, because while I was thrilled at being promoted to this new role of seniority, I was confused that not a single one of the adults said they were sorry. I wanted Mrs. Gaffney and the rest to feel horrible about all the punishment meted out, but nothing about it was ever spoken again. Even if they did feel remorse, they never admitted it, preferring to remain silent to the fact that this early installation of shame might have devastating consequences on an impressionable young mind. To them, I was an ill-behaved disruption, in need of swift, corporal discipline. To me, this all could have been avoided had their disinterest in me not been so thorough.
As with all things, time softened the memory of this episode, but I've never forgotten it or Mrs. Gaffney. As my sisters and I got older and our vocabulary more sophisticated in the use of descriptive terms in which to express ourselves, we came up with a name for these hateful old hags. Crunts. I'll let you do the math.