My second assignment in my first writing class ever was to write an essay about a significant person in my life. And even though I could have probably chosen a thousand other people to write about... I didn't...
~ July 25th 1995
Her name was... MRS. SCOLDMAN!.. and the name fit her like a glove!
I thought she was the oldest, meanest looking person I'd ever laid eyes on! My sister, who was four years my senior had warned me well to keep a distance at all cost and if that couldn't be avoided, to do whatever I could do to not draw attention to myself in her presence. That was difficult for me, standing several inches taller than most of my 5th grade classmates. I had heard stories that would chill one's blood. Stories about her dragging some kid through the halls by his ear. She had pulled on it so hard that the ear was never quite the same and forever appeared larger than the other. She also kept a paddle in her desk drawer, or so I'd heard, and if a kid crossed her she'd keep him after school and paddle the livin' daylights out of him. There was even a rumor that one or two children had disappeared over the years and though no one had actually ever known them or even knew their names, we were all fairly sure that SHE did. Still, everybody knew somebody who she'd sent trotting off to the Principal's office or who'd been made to sit up against the brick wall at recess. Both fates worse than death in Elementary School.
I would do everything I could to remain inside the lunchroom, long after the other kids had scattered to the playground, to lessen my chances as being the one to secure her wrath for some innocent act of youth. Because there she was everyday, like clockwork, pacing up and down that blacktop during lunch recess. The whistle she wore on a chain around her neck never seemed to leave those creviced lips. Creviced, no doubt, by all those years of whistle blowing.
Her grey hair was cut in a short bob with a bit of a wave on each side. I suppose it was fashionable in those days but to me it didn't suit her. Witches were suppose to have long, frizzy hair... Her steel blue eyes shifted constantly, watching... looking. I'm not sure what color the eyes in the back of her head were because I'd never seen them.. but everyone knew they were there.
The long, pleated skirts and starched blouses that she wore on her thin frame made her appear much taller than she probably was, although once, while being reprimanded, I remember noticing little wisps of nose hairs and at 5'4" I was already head to head with most adults. The white cardigan she wore was anchored over her narrow shoulders with a four inch chain and butterfly clips. As long as I knew her the arms of that sweater dangled freely.
The shoes... black oxfords, obviously chosen for comfort and nothing else, were what I noticed the most... as if looking down at the ground when she passed would make me invisible to her. It didn't, and I spent a good share of time scrunched up against the red, brick wall in solitary.. wondering what I had done.. or at least how she had known.
I had greatly anticipated 6th grade, which would culminate in my completion of Elementary School. All the older kids I'd known had loved that special place they'd held and the added privledges that came with being the older kid on campus. But for me a wrench was being thrown into the picture. There were four 6th grade teachers to be had and I had all summer to agonize over which one of them was to be my fate. And of course, if it had been any other, I would have had no reason to be writing this retrospect.
Her postcard came two weeks before school was to begin saying that she was looking forward to meeting me and being my teacher. "Yeah, I'll bet!" I thought. What kinds of evil things she had stored up her sweater sleeves for me, I could only imagine. Visions of caldrons danced in my head or at very least a year spent with a very warm fanny. My decision was made!.. and I announced to my mother my intent to drop out of school. She assured me that it would be over her dead body and asked that I "give it a chance." The walk to school that September morning was possibly the longest one I'd ever made.
My suspicion escalated with the smile that greeted me at the classroom door, topped only by the name that was printed on the chalkboard.
So, she'd dropped the "D" over the summer in an attempt to fool us..
Rows of desks lined the walls, leaving a big open space in the center of the room. It was odd. I'd never been in a classroom like that before. It almost seemed as though she wasn't ready for us.
She walked back and forth in that area all morning, expressing the hopes and expectations she had for us that year... and then we played some games to get our minds, which had atrophied over the summer, back into working order. I saw "the smile" quite a few times that first day and wondered how that stern, chiseled face I had seen so many times in my nightmares could have transformed itself into one that appeared almost soft... and caring. I was sure it was a trick. After all, I had heard things.. and at least SOME of them had to be true.
The first few weeks went off without a hitch. We definitely knew what was expected of us, as she had made that clear up front. For the most part we rose to the occasion. There were rules to be followed, it was a simple as that. Rules that had to do with or safety and courtesy and respect for each other. It was in those early days that I discovered what she really DID have up her sleeve. It was a little white hanky which displayed her monogram. She must have had a dozen of them as she carried one every day, tucked neatly into her shirt cuff. Without missing a beat, she would pull it out, do her little routine and then back into the sleeve it would go. At first I was appalled, but after a while it got to where I didn't even notice. It was just part of her.
It didn't take long to realize that the center of the classroom WAS our classroom. We did sit at our desks occasionally, but the majority of learning was done in our circle. It was there where we would do our reading and discussing, spelling bees and history lessons. She would tell us stories.. and when we least expected it she would turn it into a mathematical story problem asking who could figure it out first and then show us all on the blackboard.
She would talk about her adventures in Mexico City, where she had lived for many years when she was younger. She'd paint pictures so vivid that you felt you'd been right there with her. Thought quite American, she loved the Mexican culture and language. She would speak to us in Spanish much of the time, at first words.. then phrases. In time we came to understand what she was saying.
She also loved square dancing and everyday during the last 15 minutes of class, we'd move to the center of the room and promenade our hearts out. Dresses were the mandatory code in those days and our skirts would billow out as our partners, who were becoming gentlemen, would spin us around. She'd stand on the sidelines clapping her hands to the music, or filling in when somebody needed a partner. We all got to be pretty darn good at it. I always looked forward to that part of the of day.
I also learned to play the "flute-a-phone," a little plastic contraption that faintly resembles a clarinet, which we had each been assigned at the beginning of the year. We sounded just awful, and squeaky at first, but after hours and hours of practice we were fine-tuned enough to pull off a "concert" for our parents, which actually ended up sounding okay.
My class put on a Spring Production under her direction and I was given quite a large part. It was the first play I'd ever done... the first time I'd ever "acted." We would perform it during an evening assembly for our parents. I worked so hard to memorize my lines and practiced at home daily in front of the mirror. I don't think I cared about what all the other people who would be watching would think. I wanted to do good for HER. After the performance she pulled me aside and told me what a wonderful job I had done and how proud she was of me. I believe I went home that night knowing what it was I wanted to be when I grew up.
I don't have a memory of a textbook in her classroom. Academics is not a word I associate with my 6th grade year. I do have a report card however, which clearly displays all the subjects, and they are eached marked with a passing grade. Furthermore, I never fell behind in any of the 3 R's in my future years so I assume she had educated me adequately. For years I have been trying to figure out how she managed to teach us without our knowing we were being taught.
I have also often wondered why I had been so deathly afraid of her. I wonder if she knew that she inspired fear in every student who would never have the blessing to have her as a teacher. I think she did. Perhaps a certain feeling of respect must precede in order for someone to be truly taught. She definitely had our attention, before the fact and with that was able to reach us more effectively. I believe she really did love each one of her students... and that smile, which I had become increasingly accustomed to was reserved specifically for us. I didn't let on. I was a member of a secret society. I assume those who had come before me had felt the same allegiance.
I returned to see her on a regular basis after I had moved on to Jr. High. I could always tell that she was happy to see me by the look in her eyes. She'd give me a hug and ask about everything I was doing and then go off on a story about something that had happened recently. She was always a wonderful storyteller.
When we moved to a new school district, I could no longer visit, but I continued to think of her nonetheless. As I grew up and went on with my life, she would cross my mind from time to time and I'd wonder if she was still teaching, and then later, if she was still alive.
One Saturday, a few years ago, while visiting my parents in California, I took my children on a tour of my childhood. One of our stops was my old elementary school. It was warm out and while they played on the playground I sat in the shade against the cool bricks of the building and watched them. Finally, I walked through the halls and pressed my nose up against the window of room #12. All I could see was an ordinary classroom filled with rows of desks.
Her name was Kathryn, and I guess she touched my life. I don't know how and I don't really understand the special quality she possessed to inspire me to want to learn and succeed. But she did. Now, later in my life, I wish that I could tell her how much it had all meant to me. But then again, somehow I think she knew. I think it was her plan all along.