It’s commencement time. All over the country kids are wearing cheap robes in garish colors and square tasseled hats that won’t stay on. Millions of photos commemorate the occasion on Facebook alone, with kabillions more in shoeboxes and albums. But graduation is just one day, just one moment, really. The nine months leading up to it are the real meat, where the real stuff happened and the non-photo ops took place.
And I’m going to take this moment to reflect, to reminisce…and to out my teachers. Not in the traditional Oscar-speech sense (I don’t know if they are/were gay, and I don’t care) but more of a kid’s perspective on their awesomeness or lack of same.
Let’s start with kindergarten. I can go back further, but I don’t remember much more of Mrs. Ryder’s pre-school than Friday being the best day because it was tunafish sandwich and tomato soup day. (Wednesdays were PBJs, but the soup was beef vegetable, so a distant second.) And that the Golden Book of Zorro was my favorite read.
In kindergarten I had Mrs. Oster, who was lovely. She had a sweet, soft voice, and caring hands. We didn’t get slapped for eating the paste, which we all heard happened in the other classroom. She smelled good, and wore pastel polyester doubleknit dresses. The only time I remember her flustered was when Kathleen came to class with chicken pox: her mom had put her in a turtleneck sweater so no one could see (and it was hot that day) and then went to work where she could not be reached. That was a difficult day for Mrs. Oster.
First grade I had Miss Fishback, who ruled with an iron fist, and well-earned fear. She had this Vulcan-death-grip maneuver where her thumb and middle finger would hold the base of your skull, and she could actually lift you by the head and propel you across the room. Larger infractions meant more time in the grip, and she would sometimes parade miscreants back and forth in front of the class as they sobbed in agony and humiliation. I don’t remember what Miss Fishback wore, but she did have curly hair and glasses, and liked us to draw pictures of her for art projects. She also suggested “I love Miss Fishback” as a caption, especially for Open House displays, but I don’t think I could ever bring myself to do that. My most vivid memory of first grade is when Kax Norcia barfed all over her desk and we were all too afraid of Miss Fishback to speak out in class. So we tentatively raised our hands as puke gushed onto the floor, our instinct to get the hell out warring with the certainty of pain if we were blamed. Ahhh, the carefree days of youth.
Second grade brought Miss Kant, who was so much nicer and gentler than Miss Fishback. She wore mini skirts and a shag haircut and she was young and cool. She also let us watch movies almost every single day after lunch. Once, when the projector broke, we found out that Miss Kant left for the teachers’ lounge as soon as the lights were out. Apparently we were a challenging class.
In third grade I had the lovely Mrs. Wolf, who I remember as an elderly woman, though she was probably not much older than I am now. She had white hair and glasses, and wore grandma dresses. The biggest excitement of third grade was when Mrs. Thornsberry (another teacher) broke a garter. This had caused great consternation in her class, and required Mrs. Thornsberry to go home and repair said garter. None of us had any idea of what a garter even was, but we had all heard of garter snakes, and soon the rumor was that Mrs. Thornsberry had snakes under her skirt that were somehow trained to hold up her stockings. Mrs. Wolf tried to explain what a garter actually was, but her story wasn’t nearly so interesting as trained snakes.
In fourth grade I descended into the pits of hell. I was excited to get the young and beautiful Miss Roston as my teacher, as Miss Center was neither young nor beautiful, nor quite sane. But Miss Roston was the Evil Queen in Snow White. Being the most beautiful in all the land was central to her existence. She was a La Costa socialite who bragged about playing tennis with Barbra Streisand and bitterly complained about the lack of decent men in our smallish town. (She might even have been divorced, but that was such a shameful state in 1972 that children only heard about it in whispers.) She was lovely, with a very pretty face, loads of beautiful dark hair, fashionable clothes and a mean streak a mile wide. She was cruelest to the most tender students: migrant worker kids who lived in camps without running water were required to show the class the dirt their sponge baths had missed; a boy who had been removed from his alcoholic mother’s torture-filled care was constantly berated for any hint of “attitude”; and Miss Roston tenderly referred to me as “the elephant” and “the wildebeest.” Which is certain to instill confidence in a child and guarantee popularity among her peers.
And then it was on to Mrs. White for fifth grade. The most important thing to know about Mrs. White was that she was Miss Roston’s best friend, in the sense of the prettiest girl in the bar’s dumpy entourage. She adopted Miss Roston’s classroom management methods, where the students were divided into seating pods based on a monthly popularity contest (imagine the worst day of choosing sides for basketball and then live with the repercussions every day for a school year). Points were won or lost based on arbitrary methods I could never figure out. You didn’t seem to get any for having the best scores on tests or for writing good book reports. The same kids always got the highest points, which earned them treats like staying inside the classroom during recess on really hot days, and getting to shop in the “prize box.” And questioning the point system was the quickest way to lose points.
Miss Roston and Mrs. White sometimes “team taught” which meant they’d both take off for Frescas in the teachers’ lounge in the middle of the afternoon.
So elementary school wasn’t the greatest. When I hear people complain about how bad schools are now, I always wonder if they’re forgetting how truly wretched schools were then. When teachers could hit you. When the district saved money by poisoning all the grass and you had to go play in the poison. When no one complained about racist or sexist comments. When the “hyper kids” had their names called over the loudspeaker to come and get their Ritalin. When the teachers were worse bullies than the kids could ever be.
You think you put all this stuff behind you (and convince yourself you were overreacting to begin with) and then something happens that makes you gulp. Just a few years ago I googled Miss Fishback. And when I first saw her photo, I literally sweated with fear. It’s been forty years. I’m a successful professional. I am a foot taller than she is. She’s an elderly woman, and I could take her. But I was immediately transformed back into a little girl that would rather sit in vomit than take the risk of incurring the teacher’s wrath.