That’s not to say I didn’t grow up in a rich storytelling environment. I did, but my family specialized in the tall tale rather than realistic fiction. If the anecdote couldn’t be exaggerated and acted out, it probably wasn’t worth telling. Oral tradition ruled the day.
When I entered first grade, I found myself a titch bored with rote phonics lessons, but enamored with my little red desk. The functional piece featured a solid top and one big opening for all my possessions—and I was such a clever child.
If I squirreled away paper in just the right position, I could write my stories while other students toiled away learning their alphabet sounds. My teacher might be old and scary, but she’d certainly never encountered this trick before. I was just that bright.
The old woman circled around the class as she taught, using a yardstick to point up at letters on the wall. If she called on you to recite a sound, you would keep working at it until you got it. She never-ever provided the mercy of calling on another student to answer for you. That woman would latch on and make your life miserable until you knew the right answers.
So that day I wasn’t particularly worried about the teacher’s circling. She’d vice-gripped her attention on a little boy in the front row and already completed several laps around the room. While she waited for him to guess every sound he could imagine and work through at least three rounds of bargaining with God, I scribbled.
The yard stick came out of nowhere. I heard it whistle by my ear before it smacked down on that pretty desk with the loudest THWACK I could imagine.
I jumped so high I almost toppled out of my chair. My pencil and paper fell to the floor.
The old lady grabbed me by the ear and pulled me to the front of the classroom. She had a reputation for this and we all thought it must hurt horribly, but really the humiliation was the worst of it. The horror of being dragged from my desk in front of all those kids made tears spring to my eyes. She dropped me in a chair, where she could “keep an eye on me” and then turned back to the poor kid who couldn’t think what sound W-H made in combination. Only moments earlier, I’d felt sorry for him, but now I’d earned his pity.
When the teacher kept me in from recess, I was pretty sure I was done for. None of the other students would ever see me again. I wished I’d told my mom I loved her.
After all the other kids disappeared from the room, our teacher click-click-clicked over to my desk and snatched the paper from the floor.
Yes. I know. Not only wasn’t I paying attention in class, I also spent my time telling stories—lying. And why was I lying? Oh, it was time for my own bargaining with God. I was lying because it was fun.
The click of her heels returned to me more slowly. She must be devising a fitting death for a child so bad.
When she stopped at a big wooden cabinet, I wondered what instrument of torture she had inside.
She hovered. I winced. Then, gently, she placed a piece of red construction paper in front of me. She folded it in two and ripped it apart. Then she took my paper and ripped it in two.
And then she did the damndest thing. She placed those sheets of my story inside the red paper and she grabbed something from her desk.
Her fist came down hard. . . on a stapler.
I jumped again.
She turned the pages toward me. “Your book needs a cover.”
I never saw it coming.
I never forgot it.
She was the best teacher ever.