Modeled after “Indian Education” by Sherman Alexie
Before she went out to her garage, poured a gallon of gasoline all over herself and lit herself on fire to die a fiery death, I already didn’t like Mrs. Mumby. It was my first year of school and she hated me.
It all started with cutting a picture of Baby Jesus and the moon. She gave us only a few minutes and I rushed through, trying to cut the moon as fast as I could. She snuck up behind me like she always did and before I knew it her gray-curly-headed face was inches from mine. I could smell the after effects of too-black coffee as she spat the words at me:
“I told you how to cut, slowly and carefully. Now come outside.” And she grabbed my upper arm and yanked me into the hallway.
“You need a lesson on listening.” She dug her fingernails into my arm. “Never rush through your work or you’ll be useless all your life.”
The tears were streaming down my dumbfounded face. This was worse than the spanking and the “extra pinch for an inch” she’d given me on my birthday. I was afraid of her and I wanted to finish first to make her proud.
So when my mother had to stay home from work two days later because my teacher had killed herself, I didn’t know what to think of school. It sure as hell was one mean place.
My mother spent six weeks drawing Venus Fly Traps for a book she never received credit for, and that $650 was just enough to drive us for a camping trip to Disney World where we were allowed a singular souvenir. And what did I pick with my $3? A huge pencil, two feet long that I could barely wrap my just-turned-seven fingers around, with vibrant drawings of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck all around its core.
Sadly, spring break came to an end and my parents had to go back to working at the small town newspaper, where between them both they earned $10 an hour and could barely put food on the table, let alone give us girls a trip to Disney. My sister and I had to return to school, where the mundane Mrs. Healthferdy’s main goal in life was to have a silent first grade classroom. I wanted to play games and do science experiments, but she wanted us to copy the date exactly the same way every day: Today is Monday, April 27, 1985. BOR-ING!
But I was so excited to use my pencil that I didn’t even care! I proudly pulled my souvenir out of my backpack and started writing the day, not making a peep, just like Mrs. Healthferdy wanted. I was all the way to 1985 when she came up behind me, leaned over, and brushed my cheek with her bad-dye-job blond hair.
“Karen, you cannot use this pencil. It is much too distracting to the other students.”
I briefly glanced around the room, where the other first graders were also painstakingly writing out the date. No one was even looking at me, let alone my prized possession. But I certainly didn’t want another trip to the hall like Mrs. Mumby had offered me so many times, so I relinquished the pencil, never returned to Disney, and still don’t have a singular souvenir.
It wasn’t that I had spilled six cups of boiling water on myself, causing a second degree burn and a night in the emergency room. It wasn’t that my mother freaked out and let me stand there in a two-inch-thick sweatshirt for two minutes too long. It wasn’t that it was the day before Halloween, my favorite holiday, where I’d miss the costume parade at school.
It was Mrs. Gridley, my gym teacher. Snarky. Mean. Uncompromising.
On November 1st, it was time to go back to school. I was covered in bandages from my left arm all the way to my belly, and even had a small red mark on my chin where the water had splashed. November 1st, a Friday. Gym class. Which began each day with Mrs. Gridley, all four-feet-ten-of-her, screaming at us to raise our arms up higher for pushups. And I couldn’t raise my left arm at all. I was on a series of pain medications for the most painful thing I’d ever experienced.
But I didn’t have a doctor’s note.
“I have to do gym tomorrow if I don’t have a doctor’s note,” I pleaded with my parents.
“Are you kidding me?” My father shot back. “Just lift up your shirt and show her the bandages. You don’t need a note.”
I was desperate and afraid. I rushed into my sister Elizabeth’s room. Eighteen months older than me, she was much more knowledgeable about the world, and most importantly, knew how to write in cursive.
“Can you please write a note pretending like you’re the doctor?” I begged her.
And on a tiny notepad, in precarious, light pencil, she scrawled a note in her fourth grade cursive handwriting. It was barely legible, barely visible under Mrs. Gridley’s thick bottle-bottomed reading glasses the next morning.
“What does this SAY?” she demanded, peeking her eyes over her glasses at me.
“I—I can’t do gym today. I—I burned myself.”
“Well, I can barely read this. Is it from the doctor?”
“Y-yes…” I looked down, horrified at the idea of having to pull up my shirt, to expose to her and the rest of the world a stomach full of blisters and scars.
“Well, go sit down then and do your other homework.”
And that’s the first time I ever got away with something with a teacher.
“What do you mean, you’re leaving??” we all recited the same chorus. Mrs. Emerson, my sister’s favorite teacher to date, and now mine, had taken a principal job at another school in a different town. Mrs. Emerson, who gave me all the most challenging spelling words and math sheets, who let me curl up in her walled-off reading nook with a book when I finished my work early (and I always finished it early), who let me sit with my best friend, Kellie, even though we stole whispered conversations every chance we got.
Finally! A great teacher! And she was leaving right after Christmas?
At our class Christmas party, all the kids with the stay-at-home moms brought treats. Venison someone’s dad had hunted. Rice Krispie treats decorated with Red Hots. Gingerbread cookies that crumbled into brown bits on the floor.
We had a Secret Santa, and I pulled my crush’s name! I was so excited to buy him a book about Ziggy, his favorite comic.
It was the saddest, most bittersweet day. At the end, Mrs. Emerson went to the tree and started opening presents that students had brought. Just like all the other school years, I thought only a few students would bring her a gift. But as she opened up one picture frame or bottle of perfume or ornament after another, I began to realize that every student in the class had brought her something.
Every student but me.
I began to sweat. I put my palms under my butt and moved to the back of the crowd on the carpet. My parents didn’t have a lot of money, but neither did any of the other kids in that blue-collar, no-work town. And she was the best teacher ever! I was mortified. I felt selfish and sick.
I wanted more than anything to have the guts to go up to her after the last bell and tell her she was my favorite, tell her how much I’d miss her, tell her how sorry I was that I didn’t buy her a gift. But my small pulled-in-hallway kindergarten self took over, and I bolted out the door and into the freezing cold New York winter, barely able to breathe by the time I ran down the hill and into my babysitter’s living room.
Six weeks later, when everyone else in the class received a thank you card from Mrs. Emerson for the nice Christmas gift, she sent me a letter too, thanking me for being such a great student.
She was still my favorite teacher.