I’m doing Ann Dee Ellis’s 8-Minute Memoir Challenge (read more about it here). This is a real challenge because I don’t write memoir or personal narrative. All of the posts are written in 8-10 minutes, and except for cleaning up a bit for typos and odd phrasing, they are unedited.
I don’t remember the name of my first elementary school teacher. I didn’t stay at the school very long, and she name is lost in my memory. The name of the school was Cloud Springs Elementary. We just moved from Florida back to North Georgia to be near my mother’s family. We had stayed with my aunt and uncle, until we found a house in late September, and we changed schools.
I will always remember the name of my second first grade teacher, Mrs. Wilhoite.
It was the first day of October, and I arrived quiet and shy but already reading at a much higher level than my classmates, even though I hadn’t gone to kindergarten. Words and letters spoke to me in a dream language mind like a best friend’s whispers. I remember Mrs. Wilhoite meeting me at the office. She smiled, took my hand, and said, “I’m so glad to meet you. Welcome to our school.” I followed her like the Pied Piper to the classroom, where she asked which book we’d been reading in the other school. I scanned the Dick and Jane readers but didn’t see it. I had been allowed to read ahead and although I didn’t know it, I was already in the second grade series. I shook my head and pointed to the last Dick and Jane that I remembered. She gave me a funny look, handed it to me, and I read it straight through. After the first few pages, she smiled again and said, “You must be very smart.”
I remember sitting in the corner of the classroom, looking out windows onto the playground, which had just been covered with asphalt, an oil and tar stink that mingled with the boiled cabbage from the cafeteria. Our names were on the chalkboard. Next to the names were checkmarks. When Mrs. Wilhoite saw us being quiet, she could give us a check. My name had no checkmarks the first day, but I was very good at being quiet. By the time Halloween came, my name had twice as many checkmarks as anybody else. My prize was a Halloween mask that I proudly wore trick or treating.
The names of the teachers after Mrs. Wilhoite are forgotten, like my second grade teacher, who would bark at me when I put my fingers in my ears so I could daydream. She cracked my fingers with a ruler when I scrubbed holes in my math papers when I didn’t like the faces the twos and sixes were making. I’ve also forgotten the third-grade teacher who sniffed at my wrinkled clothes, my rat’s nest of hair, my paint-stained fingernails. Then she’d scoff, “Your mother let you leave the house like that?” Since I always dressed and fed myself and gathered my homework before my mother got home from third shift, I told the truth, “No ma’am.”
For fifth grade, I had the same teacher my brother’d had two years before. She told me that he was a “hellion” and expected me to be one, as well. But I had perfected the art of disappearing. If I was quiet enough, no one would see the fingernails clogged with paint, the rat’s nest of hair that grew and wild curly now, the hand-me-down clothes, or the scuffed sneakers I’d outgrown.
I don’t remember the name of my seventh grade social studies teacher, either, but she was the one who taught me to lie. One day, she left the room to use the phone, warning us to be quiet while she was gone. Lots of kids talked, and I asked to borrow an eraser to fix a spelling mistake. When the teacher returned, the classroom fell silent. She sat at her desk and called roll, asking each kid if they had talked while she was gone. Very few kids admitted it. Maybe one or two, but none of the ones who had made the most noise. Not the kids who’d been out of their seats and sprinted back when they heard her coming. None of the boys who’d shot spitballs at the chalkboard. When my name was called, I admitted that I had spoken. I had been taught to always tell the truth.
When the roll was finished, she called us all into the hallway one by one and paddled us. She gave me six licks on the butt and two on the lower thigh that left bruises. She taught me a lot that day–that honest people got punished and liars got away with their lies; that an adult can abandon her job with no punishment; and that it was better to hide the truth than trust others, and I have never forgotten those lessons, though I wish I could daydream them away.
Sometimes when I think back on those times, I wonder what became of Mrs. Wilhoite, who has long since retired by now. She left Lakeview Elementary school after my first year, and I never saw her again. I hope that she had the life she wanted, that her career was long and fruitful, and that there was a long succession of little boys and girls, too quiet to speak, who found their voices in her classroom.