Maybe it's just me. But looking back over all those godforsaken years of public education I went through?almost two decades' worth?shuffling through all the faces of all the teachers I've had, the ones who leap to mind first aren't the inspirations, the kindhearted, the ones who went above and beyond to give me a fighting chance in this world. No, I remember the monsters.
Everybody has monstrous-teacher stories, and most of them seem to involve nuns. Oh, the nun stories I've heard! (In a strange coincidence, a simple Web search for "Evil Teachers" retrieves one of two things?either the home pages of 13-year-olds, or Bible studies.) Going to public school in Wisconsin, I didn't have any nuns to deal with, but I did have my share of cruel-eyed, child-hating abominations who had somehow found themselves trapped in the wrong profession. Or the perfect profession, depending upon how evil they really were at heart.
I had been looking forward to school long before I ever started. My folks had me juiced up about all the new books I'd get to read, all the new things I'd learn, all the new experiences I'd have. I literally skipped along beside my mother (yes, well) as she walked me to my first day of kindergarten. She led me through the front doors of the school, then down the empty hallway to my first class. Then she opened the door.
Well, for all the things my parents had told me about all the wondrous things I'd find in school, they'd forgotten to mention one tiny detail: the fact that I wouldn't be alone. I took one look at those 25 sets of beady little eyes staring back at me as I stood in the doorway, knew immediately that I wanted nothing to do with any of this, and bolted.
My mother had to drag me back into the building three times before the teacher was able to get the name tag around my neck. Now, this name tag was a circular piece of cardboard tied to a loop of heavy yarn. Once that was over my head, the teacher held on to it like a bridle, snapping me back into place and nearly severing my spinal cord the next time I made a run for the door. I spun around, landed a shoe in her shin and called her a dummy, but I knew by then that I was defeated. Trapped in this new world, overseen by a strange woman whose name I didn't know, but whom I already hated. She didn't seem to care much for me, either.
It was a bad start. But it didn't last long?or rather, she didn't last long?quitting the profession two weeks later, only to be replaced by the kindly and patient Mrs. Massey.
Things were calm for a while after that?oh, there was Miss Moe, 86 years old but still handy with the ruler, and Mrs. Herkmann, whose very name could inspire terror the way Frau Bluecher's did, but they left me alone.
It wasn't until I hit fourth grade that I ran into an adult who, for reasons I'm still curious about, simply despised me. I know people say things like that, convinced that their teacher has singled them out for some reason, but it's true. Ran into two of them at Webster School that year.
There was Mrs. Brown, beloved by most, a tall, red-haired woman with a Southern accent, who kept dropping my grade each quarter because I refused to speak in class, and because I was not terribly personable with the rest of my little schoolmates. The more she dropped my grade, the more I dug in my heels and refused to speak.
Then there was the Evil Mrs. Jenkins. Funny, but trying to remember her face nowadays, all I can come up with is Margaret Hamilton in The Wizard of Oz. She even talked like Margaret Hamilton. While most people later in life choose to blame their various problems and neuroses on their parents, I feel absolutely justified in blaming mine on Mrs. Jenkins.
I was out on the playground after lunch. It was late winter, the air was cold, there was still a good deal of snow on the ground. I was strolling about up near the school when suddenly I saw my friend Charley?a small kid, even smaller than I was?come screaming past me, a great fear in his eyes. Closing in behind him, I saw another kid in pursuit. I didn't know his name, but I'd seen him around, and I didn't like him. And now he was chasing one of the few people I did like, obviously intent on hurting him. Instinctively, and much more quickly than I would figure myself capable of, I shot out a stubby little fist and clipped the bully full in the mouth. He fell to the blacktop, holding onto his mouth and screaming. I'd never done anything like that before, and I had to admit that it felt pretty damn good. Besides, I was just defending Charley.
Nevertheless, despite my noble actions, I was grabbed by one of the playground monitors and dragged to the principal's office, where I was roundly chastised.
(This story's going someplace, by the way.)
Now, this all took place in the early days (for Wisconsin, at least) of the "New Education," when it was felt that it was important for teachers to instill in their students a sense of "self-esteem." And being as it was a new and untested idea, apparently, a lot of teachers in my school weren't exactly sure how to go about this.
As it turns out, the very afternoon of my tussle with the bully was the same afternoon that Mrs. Jenkins was going to take her first clumsy stabs at bolstering her class' "self-esteem." What she decided to do was very simple: go around the classroom, student by student, and have all the other members of the class say something nice about them, make a list of their good qualities.
After half an hour of "He's funny" or "She's pretty," "He's a good kickball player" or "She's smart"?even in fourth grade I found it all pretty sickening?Mrs. Jenkins finally got to me.
And then she skipped over me.
Somebody started to say something, but that awful crone raised her bony hand. "No," she said, "we can't make a list of Jim's good qualities, because he doesn't have any."
This, by the way, as if I have to make this point anymore, is an absolutely true story.
I was too stunned to raise any protest at the time. Besides, I was nine and she was an adult?what the fuck was I supposed to say? Soon enough, I simply came to accept her conclusion. No good qualities? Fine. I wouldn't give her any good qualities. Over the next few months, I got to enjoy my first taste of petty vandalism and absolutely pointless violence.
The next year, however, I left Webster School and Mrs. Jenkins behind, and laid low for awhile. I became a "good kid" once again, and stopped drawing swastikas at the top of all the papers I turned in. (I didn't know what the swastika represented?all I knew was that it really pissed people off.) Even had a couple of stellar teachers, who pushed the memories of Mrs. Jenkins out of my mind. Until I hit Don Dascher's eighth-grade math class at Washington Junior. Dascher was extremely popular among a certain bandwidth of the student body. He was young, he had a beard, he played guitar. He really loved the soft rock sounds of Seals & Croft. And he took great joy in belittling me in as public a manner as possible. Maybe that's why they liked him.
I was a very short child. While the rest of my classmates had their pubescent growth spurts, I hung close to the ground. So whenever he asked me to come up to the front of the class to do a problem on the blackboard, Dascher made a grand production of pulling out a chair for me to stand on (and usually one with wheels).
"You'd never be able to reach it otherwise, would you?" he'd chuckle, as the rest of the class would chuckle with him.
And often, after I climbed up on the chair (because he was right?I never would be able to reach it otherwise), but before I had a chance to begin the math problem presented me, he'd say, "Why don't you just get down from there?" Then he'd turn to the class and say, "Jim obviously has no idea what he's doing."
It got to the point, only a few weeks into the year, that I'd stop in the bathroom and throw up before I had to enter his classroom every day.
I don't mean to be a whiny sissy about all this. As I noted, we all have evil teacher stories?and mine certainly aren't the worst I've ever heard. But they're mine. I was never exactly sure what I did to Dascher?or to Mrs. Jenkins, for that matter?to garner this reaction from them. But thinking back on it after all these years, I've come to the conclusion that it was all for the best.
It might sound like a strange thing to say. Or maybe not. Because, you see, there's something to be learned from monsters at such an early age. I'm not even saying that these people were necessarily bad teachers. Mrs. Jenkins taught me what consonant clusters were. She also taught me to hold in contempt anyone who would talk about?let alone try to teach?"self-esteem." Dascher taught me the fundamentals of geometry. He also taught me how to hate people who played to the crowd. So no, they weren't bad teachers at all. They were just rotten human beings. And from them, I learned what sorts of things I might be able to expect from the rest of the world when I actually got out into it.