Friday, December 2, 2011

Crying, Part 2

I am not saying that I am the best teacher. I do work with some teachers who take my breath away. And I'm not saying that I have the best management skills in the world. There are teachers I know who are far better than me at classroom discipline. But one thing I do well is love my students. Even when there are issues, even when I have to be hard and think of consequences, my kids know there is caring there

Sister Rachael Marie is there with me in my second and third grade classrooms for she taught me how NOT to teach. So I am thankful for her. Here is part two of a memoir I wrote in my own classroom probably 40 years after having Sister Rachael Marie as my second grade teacher.

Crying - Part 2

“What did you put in your hair?” Each of her words made me cower lower in my seat. He didn’t speak. “Answer me!” she yelled.

“Bacon grease, Sister,” James choked out. “I’m sorry.”

“What on earth were you thinking? To the office!” By this time she had jerked him out of his seat by the ear. James winced in pain as he rose to his feet. But he did not cry. That boy had a high threshold of pain. I would have been blubbering like a baby and begging for forgiveness, for release. He simply wouldn’t or couldn’t cry. Then she pulled his hair.

“How dare you do that to yourself? That’s filthy! It’s disgusting! What will your father say?” If his parents were anything like mine, they would have probably laughed about it and called him a goofball. It really wasn’t that big of a deal. Somehow I think she felt like she owed him, like he had gotten away with too much lately. Why else would she have pulled his hair like that?

“I… don’t… know…Sister…” The words came out with little spaces between them, little puffs. Spaces that I knew were filled with pain. I could see his scalp rise at the front of his hairline. His clip on bowtie was askew. His eyes were squeezed shut. He was waiting for her to let go. We all knew that she wouldn’t until she got what she was looking for.

“What will your father say?” she repeated. Now she shifted her grip from the front of his hair to his sideburns. Of course we were too young for real sideburns but Sister knew what to do. She grabbed that little piece of hair just in front and above his ear. This was the foolproof way to make someone cry. She knew it and James knew it too. She grabbed that little piece of hair and pulled it hard.

James shut his eyes even tighter. He wasn’t trying to be brave; it was just not in his nature to cry. We all knew she wouldn’t stop pulling until he did. It was her currency.

I said a little prayer for James. I prayed that he would cry. I prayed that Sister would let him go. Perhaps I should have prayed for Sister to have a kinder heart, for her to have mercy on this little boy. James, who was so cool. James, who was my friend.

After what seemed like a very long time a tear welled up in the corner of one of his eyes. He never squealed or moaned. But he did begin to cry. All of us who could see that tear hoped that it would signal the end of Sister Rachael Marie’s discipline. That tear grew slowly until it slipped down his cheek and onto his handwriting paper. A big round wet spot that blurred the pink and blue lines.

When she saw this she simply let him go. James’ face was blotchy. He sat back down. Respectfully. Now there were tears in both of his eyes. His nose was runny and he wiped it with the back of his sleeve.

Perhaps she had forgotten her demand that he go down to the principal’s office. Or maybe she figured that her discipline had worked. After all, she had brought James to tears, something I’d never thought possible.

“Well, now,” Sister sighed. “Where were we? Oh yes, the letter Q. You may think that it looks like the number 2 but there is a difference…”

At some point in our lives we stop crying for pain. I’m sure it’s different for everyone but as adults we reserve our tears for the death of loved ones or bitter arguments or particularly sad movies or books. At some time we forget about crying for pain. We may cry out in pain when we hit our thumb with a hammer or close a finger in the door but, for most of us, physical pain does not bring on tears as it did in our youth. But, in second grade most children cry tears of pain. Everyone I knew did. Everyone but James.

Did Sister know this? Is that why she was so hard on him? Was she conducting a subconscious experiment on human nature or was she just curious to find his threshold?

We learned lots from Sister Rachael Marie. We learned beautiful cursive writing. We learned our addition and subtraction facts forwards and backwards. We learned to sit up straight and to keep our desks in order. We learned to line up our desks in straight rows. We learned to, “straighten up and fly right”.

We learned to look into the face of Sister when she was talking to us and not to whisper to our neighbors. We learned respect for authority.

That year my dad taught me how to tie a real necktie. The girls learned how to clip their beanies to their heads with bobby pins.

In second grade I made my first confession and took First Holy Communion. I had my first real crush on a girl. It was real to me.

That year I learned how to build a model car from my brother Pat. I learned how to bunt a baseball from my neighbor Rick and to play kick the can with my neighborhood boys. I learned how to catch lightening bugs without squashing them and how to catch a garter snake without being bitten. I learned how to catch tadpoles from the swamp and to change their water so I could watch them change into froglets.

I learned to cry that year too. Of course I had cried countless times before (I had two older brothers and three older sisters who honed their teasing skills on me).

On my way home from school the day that James cried, I cried too. I didn’t ride the bus home as I usually did. I didn’t want to be around my friends. I remember sitting down in a weedy empty lot, setting my books down next to me and sobbing for James. I cried until my head ached and my nose ran. I cried until I coughed. Then I pulled myself together, gathered my things and walked home.

When I saw James in school the next day he didn’t even mention the incident. I never saw him cry again.

1 comment:

Chris Hass said...

Man, add this to the teacher in your first student-teaching assignment and the principal during your internship and you've witnessed some truly terrible (no,make that horrifying)educators.Had you gone into nursing I can only imagine, with your luck, you would have found yourself with a mentor like Nurse Mildred Ratched.

Seriously, bacon grease? Ewww. As gross as it is to imagine you do have to laugh. You sometimes have to wonder what goes through kids' minds when they do quirky things like this.

My mom once put a whole jar of Vaseline in my hair to slick it down for Halloween. I'm just sayin' that stuff doesn't really come out all that easily. Even growing up in a town full of greasy-headed boys I stood out. All I remember now was having to stick my head in the sink while bottles of vinegar were poured over my head in hopes of getting it out. These were obviously the days before the internet. I wonder what advice you could find for this predicament on Google?

(45 seconds later) Okay, I looked it up. Oddly enough, when I typed "How do I get Vaseline out of..." hair was the first thing to pop up. Who would have thought this was a common problem? They suggest mayonaisse, dish soap, and baby oil. But not vinegar. That's probably for the best since my head smelled like vinegar for like a week. As you can imagine, I was the king of popularity that week!

I forgot to mention this to you but I finally started the book you gave me a few months ago - The Hunger Games. It's a bit dark so far but I'm only four chapters in.