Sep 15 2019

School Days

Published by at 5:35 pm under Education

I was just talking with my dear old friend Lisa about our elementary-through-high school’s upcoming centennial celebration. She said the staff is collecting one-minute video memories from graduates about their time at THS. So far, those participating are those who have enjoyed great success (like a classmate I liked who now heads Pixar) or who are very old, like my mother’s 99-year-old friend. People who appreciate the school. It got me thinking about what I — a misfit — would say about the institution’s influence on me. Here are some random one-minute vignettes from my own experience of the place:

Oh dear. I wonder if I have any good memories. I’m trying, but coming up empty, except for my beloved, elderly 2nd grade teacher, Mrs. Warfield. She was just a tiny little thing, even to a second-grader, and sweet as could be. It was with her that I wrote my best story: The Changing-Colored Dragon. I wrote the title first, and by the end, had to amend it: The Changing-Colored Dragon That Didn’t Change Colors Very Much.

Ah, but the next year, it was Draco the Dragon:  a corpulent, pasty-faced woman with deep shadows under her eyes and billowy white hair. She looked like a ghost and didn’t seem to like kids a lot. I’ll never forget one test she gave. The question was, When you drop something, what do you do? a) Try to grab it, b) Shout in surprise, c) Let it drop. I marked a) Try to grab it, and she marked me wrong, saying the correct answer was c). To this day, every time I drop something and reflexively try to keep it from hitting the ground, I think of her. Her husband, by the way, was the middle school history teacher who kept forgetting what he was saying as he said it, exactly as I do now. I remember one question on one of his tests: What was the name of Napoleon’s dog?

In 4th grade, poor old Mrs. West, who was at least a thousand, tried to teach us reading. She’d come up with some pretty useful vocabulary words sometimes, like debacle (I can still hear her saying that word in her nasal, quavering voice) but she was a crotchety old biddy whose desire to promote our ten-year-old command of English was often thwarted by us, and we made terrible fun of her. She kept a special rock, about the size of a grapefruit, on her desk. One of us (it wasn’t I, but I liked the idea when it happened) hid it from her. She came into the classroom and squealed: Where is my rock? Who took my rock? I don’t remember what happened, but she got it back in the end. 

Who could ever forget Mr. Greisinger: a squat man as harsh as his name, with a outsized hook nose shadowing thin, perpetually pursed lips, on the lower of which was always a white dot of spit that became a thread as he talked, stretching and contracting. I called it his DOSOL: Dot of Spit on Lip. He had a violent temper, and would throw kids like shy David against the blackboard, their heads whipping against the slate. Once he lifted feisty Teddy into the air and jammed him, butt down, into the tall, green industrial metal trashcan. Bent at the hips with only legs and head emerging, Teddy got stuck. I learned writing from Mr. Greisinger, through pure fear. He called me up in front of the class one time, to show me a picture of himself on a beach in a Speedo with his arm around some woman. He also taught me sentence diagrams for three years. I remember one story I wrote in his class, about someone who falls into a pit filled with sharpened sticks, experiencing, of course, an agonizing death.

In 7th grade I studied science with Mrs. Bobette Mason, undertaking my favorite assignment of my young school career: an insect collection, a semester-long project. I found scores of creatures, from lightning bugs to June beetles to butterflies to the lowly black ant, and carefully mounted them exactly as instructed, piercing the upper-right portion of the thorax with a fine entomology pin, and attaching a tiny strip of paper at the bottom with the common and Latin names in miniscule letters. Toward the end of the project, my family went to our farm in Virginia, where I discovered so many more insects — including a giant rhinoceros beetle in a hayfield — that I ran out of supplies: pins and ether. Not to be thwarted, I borrowed my mother’s sewing pins and meticulously continued the preservation process. I used gin to kill the bugs. That didn’t work so well, as I discovered when one of my very drunk insects, pinned to the styrofoam, tried to walk away. Eventually, with great pride, and the expectation of my first-ever A, I handed in my three trays of entomological samples. A few days later I got it all back, with a grade of C. Because I hadn’t used the right materials. I don’t think I ever had hope of doing well in school after that. And I never did.

Mrs. Jean Morton was a pinch-mouthed woman with styled black hair and a powdery white face tinted with Avon-blushed cheeks. Her visage, in repose, was the prototypical Resting Bitch Face. She was my ninth grade English teacher and she hated me. I was painfully shy, and then, as now, my hands shook. Mrs. Morton told me to put on some record that she wanted to play for us. Trembling in front of all the class, I picked up the tone arm and tried to place the needle carefully, but I wobbled and scratched the vinyl. What’s the trouble, Allison? Too many drugs? In front of everyone: all the popular kids, as well as my friends. So strong was my dislike of her that I adapted a popular song of the time — Jean by Rod McKuen. The original went, Jean, Jean, you’re young and alive, come out of your half-dreamed dream. And run, if you will, to the top of the hill… My version went, Jean, Jean, you’re old and a bitch. Get out of my life, nasty Jean. And hobble, if you will, to the bottom of hell…

Jean Morton

In high school, the big art room in the basement was my refuge. I was lucky to be there, because my 8th grade art teacher, a rigid, cold man completely lacking in creativity, gave me a D in art, thus barring me from taking the subject in high school. Somehow, however, I got around that, and I spent every free moment down there. Teachers could smoke in the classroom back then, and the Latin teacher, the perv Mr. Spaulding, would often come down and visit the new and wonderful art teacher while enjoying a quick cigarette. By age 15, I had permission from my parents to smoke, but of course I couldn’t do it in school. So what to do during the long day? I was skinny enough to wiggle feet-down into one of those green trashcans that Teddy got stuck in. Once ensconced at the bottom I would reach up an arm and Mr. Spaulding would pass down his lit Tareyton to me. 

Though it was a closed campus, I was also known to sneak out the back door onto the grassy playground by the music building, from whence I would make the mad dash up to the street and across, and hide behind the stone statue of the thickly mustachioed Admiral Samuel duPont. Safely out of sight, I’d light up a cigarette. Once, the gentle Mr. Tappan caught me there, and never said a word to get me in trouble. My escapes didn’t always go as planned, however. At least once, just as I swung open that door, I felt a hand on my shoulder from behind: the assistant headmaster, Mr. Savage. Where’re ya goin’, Big Gins? he demanded, and steered me back into the school. That guy was everywhere you didn’t want him to be. I was terrified of him.

Mr. Crichton wasn’t as accepting of my smoking habit as his science colleague Mr. Tappan. Crichton was the diminutive, birdlike biology teacher, father of identical triplet boys my age, miniatures of his miniature self. In one class, he wanted us to run a litmus test on some urine. He asked for volunteers to provide said substance. Of course, no one raised their hand. So off he went, returning soon thereafter, holding aloft a test tube practically overflowing with the frothy, neon stuff. Anyway, on an overnight science field trip, we were camped in the woods by a creek. Nearby, I met a cute hippie guy from a school in Cherry Hill, NJ. He and I went off and had a cigarette together. No one saw us, but Mr. Crichton smelled the smoke on me when I got back, and got me suspended for three days. On the last of those days, I left my house and walked to the graveyard across the street from the school. I’d found among my mother’s things a beach-towel-sized green felted banner with the school’s name emblazoned in white. When school let out, I stood alone in the cemetery with the banner held aloft for passersby to see. I’m not sure why. A rebel thing: They can banish me but I’ll get in their faces anyway, or something like that.

Ollie Crichton

That last year of high school was hard. I was desperate to leave. I was miserable. My grades were bad, my motivation for schoolwork nonexistent. The bright spot of my day, aside from my time in the art room, was the walk to and from school during the late spring. I cut through a hidden path skirting a wooded field.  I brought with me my school things, along with a bottle of rotgut wine and a jar of peanut butter. As I walked, I would take a swig or two, to get in the mood for what lay ahead. Moments before arriving, I would stash the bottle in the bushes and eat a spoonful of the peanut butter to disguise my breath. I’m amazed that no one ever noticed. I told my mother this story today, and she was mortified. Daddy and I didn’t even drink wine, so where did you get it?

One of the things I most hated about school, aside from the academic and social pressure and the snobby preppies, was gym class. I was a terrible athlete (except I was pretty good, oddly, at two of those Northeastern blue-blood mainstays: lacrosse and squash) and detested everything about competition with people much more athletically blessed than I. The popular kids. And when the ball approached me, I’d go rigid with nerves, and miss, to my teammates’ loud disapproval. So I did what I could to get out of gym. One time I kicked my right big toe repeatedly into a wall, hoping to injure it just enough to excuse me from hockey. I guess I wasn’t kicking hard enough. So my next step was to head for the art room, where the teacher got out his oils and painted a mighty bruise on said toe. Off I marched — uh, fake-hobbled — to the nurses’s office. She took my foot into her hand, took one look at the toe, and wiped it with her thumb, getting paint on herself. Busted. She had two rubber stamps in her desk: one that said Excused from Athletics and the other with her signature. Somehow, and I’m not totally sure how, I am now in possession of these two items.

So… do you think I should contact the school and tell them one of my stories? Ha ha haaa.

There is, in fact, one good thing I remember: the headmaster, Mr. Coates. Few of my friends could stand him, authority figure that he was, and this in the rebellious early 70s. But he was a family friend and I loved him. I remember at least once, the pressure of school and my profound unhappiness there got the better of me. Not knowing where to turn, I asked Mr. Coates’ secretary, a kind, painfully bashful mouse named Miss Grace Klock (whom we dubbed Amazing Grace), for a meeting with him. Uncle Malc, I called him. Miss Klock wasn’t sure if Uncle Malc would want to admit me into his office, busy man that he was, but he did, and let me hide in his dark-wood-paneled haven until I felt better. Memory places me at one point curled under his desk, not wanting to go back out. He allowed me to stay a bit, without judgment or questions.

Uncle Malc

2 responses so far

2 Responses to “School Days”

  1. Molly says:

    Where’re ya goin’, Big Gins?

    Fascinating all around, it is. I am still SO MAD on your behalf about all your hard work on your insect project, and that ridiculous excuse for a bad grade. I wish I could go back in time and encourage a tiny Tinna to follow her scientific interests nonetheless, and scold the teacher while at it.

    And where *did* you get the rotgut wine from?

    I’m glad Mrs. Warfield was kind, at least. And that’s a very lovely memory about stern Mr. Coates providing a place of refuge sometimes.

  2. Ginna says:

    Oooh, thanks for your comment! Yes, I’m still so mad about a lot of that stuff. Very damaging to a wee soul. I just saw on the list of attendees at the school’s centennial that Bobbette was going to be there. I thought for sure she’d be dead by now. I should go and have a word with her. Unforgivable, in my opinion.

    Every now and then we’d find a liquor store that would sell to us. And at least one time, we got an adult to buy us a bottle of something.

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