During Teachers Appreciation Week — which is this week — I remember the good ones and the bad. One thing about having the latter is ... they make you appreciate the good teachers you get even more. They teach you something else too. As my grandmother used to say, “Now that’ll just show you how NOT to act!”
I had my fair share of mean ass teachers growing up starting with the one in first grade. She punished you by giving you a “tapping,” which was anything but. She’d place your hand face down in the palm of hers … as her other one came bearing down in one big round house slap. The sting felt like a thousand needles.
Another teacher who taught art (of all things) went for your head. She’d grab a fist full of your hair at the back and shake it in the air like a dust rag. I thought of how horses must feel with a bit in their mouth.
But oddly enough, the most terrifying teacher, the one who put a dent in my body (but not my spirit) never raised a finger. Not even her voice.
Mrs. Turner was beautiful. She had dark hair with a widow’s peak at her forehead, deep blue eyes, impeccable posture, and she moved with poise at all times. She personified order — in her dress, the lines of her makeup, on her desk and how she conducted the classroom. For reasons I never understood, she had it out for me from day one.
It started with sarcasms. With a melodious voice, Mrs. Turner could morph you into a midget — take whatever confidence, if any, a 12-year-old could have and turn it into something that felt like, “cooties,” or much worse. She struck with tongue and tone, the combination of which was completely debilitating.
Not even the sound of my father’s alligator belt, zinging off of his waist like a bull red on a fishing line, could make me shake like the silent stare of Mrs. Turner. Remember Mrs. Danvers in the 1938 movie Rebecca? Ditto.
What broke me was an incident that happened one afternoon just after we’d returned to the classroom from recess. I don’t know what I was doing (probably experiencing the positive affects of having been away from Mrs. Turner for 20 minutes) but it prompted her to call my name out, directing me to come stand in front of the classroom.
I felt fireworks go off in my stomach.
I wore braces at the time and often after the dentist had put in new wires and tightened them, my lips would swell. Noticing this, Mrs. Turner saw opportunity.
Like an object for show and tell, I stood in the empty space staring down at the squares in the floor while Mrs. Turner, from behind her desk, posed questions to the class. “Can anyone tell me what’s different about Miss Herrington today?” I don’t remember anyone saying anything. If they did I didn’t hear them.
Only the words that followed, straight from Mrs. Turner’s dark soul. “Look at her mouth,” she scoffed, “those lips poochin’ out, don’t you think?….”
It seemed hours before it was over. I stayed glued to that spot, my eyes to the 5-inch by 5-inch square in the light blue linoleum floor and counting every speck in it. Somehow, I got back to my desk in one piece but feeling shattered inside. I peddled home on my bicycle so fast that my salty tears burned.
I couldn’t know that something else was burning too. A flame that eventually would become fire.
It kept me safe from Turners (not just in schools) and more importantly…from ever becoming one.