Sunday, April 3, 2011

School Called. Why Must You Always Make Your Teachers Cry?

Greetings! I found a scene I kind of like, from my 2009 NaNoWriMo novel (first time reading it since I finished on 11/30/09). Enjoy... Or don't. Hahahahaha - no, really. Enjoy it...

One cold 4th-grade morning, we came into our double-wide classroom to find "SPELLING" scrawled on the blackboard. Beneath that, it said "Miss Adams." My chronically-knotted little stomach relaxed a bit. At least for now, there would be no math, and I preferred Miss Adams to Mrs. Martin, whom I found frightfully intimidating. Maybe I could survive the morning.

We sat in a circle on the floor, with all the desks shoved back toward the outer edges of the room. Mrs. Martin was sitting way back in the corner at her desk, grading tests or concocting new ways to torture us or reading a Harlequin Romance or whatever the hell teachers did when they weren't actively making us do stuff we didn't want to do. She was a big, sturdy, pretty woman in her forties, always impeccably and - I realize now - expensively-attired. Her black hair was always perfect and shellacked like one of those new non-stick skillets, and usually featured a bow or ribbon in the same color as her dress. She wasn't mean. She was just strong and firm and a little loud. She was a force in the classroom.

If Mrs. Martin was the bad cop in this double-teacher arrangement, then Miss Adams was clearly the good one. She was at least ten years younger than her co-teacher, and in many ways her opposite. She had a softness about her. She was much thinner than Mrs. Martin, her hair was wavy and usually left to its own devices, she wore simple dresses and occasionally - gasp - pants, and she had a gentle teaching style. Her southern accent probably added to that. She just always sounded sweet and encouraging and concerned. Miss Adams had the patience of a saint, so seeing her there walking slowly around inside the circle of students was comforting.

I suppose public humiliation is just a part of learning, and short of having one teacher per student in private cubicles, there doesn't seem to be any way around it. Spelling was especially brutal. Today, it appeared that Miss Adams was going to go around the entire class, counter-clockwise, starting just a few kids to my left. I could live with that. There would be plenty of little humiliations before she got to me, so any failure on my part would just be one of many by then. It was worst when you were the first kid to spell a word wrong. Looking around the circle, I was confident that at least ten mistakes would be made en route to me.

I wasn't too far off. The very first word given was misspelled by one of the girls, but she was known to be smart, so no one laughed at her. A couple of kids down the line, "mountain" was spelled wrong. To my right, one of my few acquaintances, Lewis Hardy, elbowed me.

"That was a tricky one," he whispered, "but that guy is kind of an idiot."

"Yeah." I laughed a bit too loudly, as evidenced by the glance Miss Adams shot my way over her shoulder. Lewis was the class genius and to this day is probably the most intelligent person I have known, so his casual friendship was both a blessing and a curse. It felt good to know that such a smart person valued my company, but he was extremely quiet and a little too smart to avoid the "weird" label. He was a nice guy and usually exceedingly diplomatic, so hearing him refer to someone as an idiot was kind of a jolt.

Lewis gave Miss Adams a minute to refocus on the boy who couldn't spell mountain, then he leaned in my direction. "Do you remember his Pilgrim hat from art class last Thanksgiving?"

"Yeah," I answered, much more carefully than before. "It was all pointy and cone-shaped, like a dunce cap."

"Right. And how many pictures of Pilgrims have you seen where their hats have big John Deere belt buckles on them?" he sneered.

I had to think about that for a second. I had remembered some sort of oversized buckle on that guy's construction paper hat, but it took my brain a moment to connect "John Deere," a name I barely knew, with the anatomically-incorrect dog-like monster sitting in the middle of that creation. "Is that what that thing was supposed to be? I thought it was a dragon getting blown up by an atom bomb." I whispered. "How about that diorama of the Nixon Resignation Signing he did last year? What a joke."

"I know!" Lewis chuckled. "He had Nixon signing with his left hand, and he put Earl Butz between Ford and Kissinger. Now, I don't know if Ford and Kissinger were in the Oval Office for the signing, but I'll bet you a million dollars that the Fucking Secretary of Agriculture was not! If any Cabinet members would have been there, it would have been Saxbe. What an imbecile."

I let another surprised laugh escape. I had never heard Lewis cuss before, let alone use the F-word. "Right. Saxbe. I mean, duh!" I said.

"Worst diorama ever." Lewis shook his head in disgust.

From my left, Marty Collins, Lewis' friend, interjected. "Don't act like you know who William Saxbe is, James." Marty was another smart one, but unlike Lewis, he always had an irresistible need to make sure everyone knew how intelligent he was. He wasn't brilliant - just a know-it-all, so it made me feel all warm inside when Miss Adams turned and uttered her southern little "shoosh" (She actually said "shoosh." It sounded as though there might even have been an extra O in there) squarely at Marty.

"Burn!" I whispered just as she returned her attention to the spelling torture at hand.

After a few more relatively uneventful stops around the circle of tormented spellers, Miss Adams arrived in front of Lewis. There was an expectant hush, as we all knew she'd give him a really hard word, as she always did. "Lewis, please spell 'scimitar.'"

Lewis sat up and cleared his throat thoughtfully. "Can you use it a sentence, please?"

"The dreaded pirate Blackbeard's weapon of choice was his scimitar." she said.

"With all due respect, ma'am, Blackbeard's primary weapons were the Queen Anne's Revenge and when push came to shove, his pistol." If anyone else in the class had made such a statement to one of the teachers, he or she would have been in trouble, but Lewis was always so respectful, quiet and correct that he got away with it. "May I have the word's origin, please?" he continued.

"This isn't a spellin' bee, sweetie." Miss Adams smiled. He spelled the word. Correctly. My turn.

"James," she said, "Please spell 'plowin'' - as in, 'The farmer was up early, plowin' his field." She winked at Lewis, then looked at me.

"Plowin'?" I asked.

"Plowin'." she repeated.

"P-L-O-W-I-N." I stopped. She looked at me expectantly. I heard a muted giggle from somewhere behind her.

"Almost, hon. Sound it all the way out as you think about all the letters in the word."

I was puzzled. "You said 'plowin'' - right?"

"That's right, James. Take your time." she was very focused on me and doing her best to keep me from getting upset, but it was not working.

"P-L-O-W-I-N." I said, already seeing the disappointment on Miss Adams' face. "As in, the farmer was up early PLOWIN' his field." Another giggle or two, then uncomfortable silence.

"No, sweetie. P-L-O-W-I-N-G." she said.

"Duh!" Marty blurted. A full round of laughter followed, before Miss Adams squelched it with another "Shooosh!" and a wave of her finger all the way around the circle.

"You didn't say G!" I protested.

"Well, sure I did, darlin' - P-L-O-W-I-N-G." She titled her head quizzically, then looked up momentarily, as if the next word was written on the ceiling tiles. "Okay. Let's try another one. Spell 'fishin' - as in, 'Tom Sawyer spent the day at the fishin' hole.'"

I could feel my neck and face flushing with anger. "Fishin'? You said FISHIN' - right?"

"Yes. Fishin'," she said again. Way back at her desk in the corner, Mrs. Martin had stopped working and was watching me intently.

I sighed and tried again. "F-I-S-H-I-N." Sniggering ensued and after another lengthy "are you sure you're done" stare, Miss Adams shook her head. "That's exactly what she said!" I insisted. "I spelled exactly what she said!" This only amused the class more. I'm quite certain I heard the word "stupid" more than once, out there.

Mrs. Martin had made her way over to the circle of chortling cruelty and was standing just behind Lewis, looking at me as though she were concerned that I might have been poisoned. With one sharp little stomp of her heel on the tile floor, she silenced the room. "James, let's try one more. Can you spell the word 'Spellin' for me, darlin'?" Yes, although hers was more aristocratic and a bit easier to deal with than Miss Adams' southern accent, she had one, too.

I was shaking with frustration. I spelled what I heard once more, and as the laughter started again, I looked at Mrs. Martin. She was nodding toward the chalk board across the room, where the word 'SPELLING' had been so clearly written. Just then Martin and at least two or three others started scolding me with "G! G! There's a G at the end, stupid. I-N-G!"

I leapt from my spot on the floor, knocking Martin into the girl to his left. "I know that! She didn't say 'spelling'! She said 'SPELLIN'!' There's no fucking G in 'SPELLIN' Goddamn it!! And I know how to fucking spell 'FISHING.' But she wasn't saying 'fishinG.' She kept saying 'FISHIN' - so that's what I fucking spelled. What is WRONG with you people???"

I was sent to the Principal's office, and later received a week-long grounding from my parents, for refusing to tell them where I'd heard such language because it sure as hell wasn't from them.

Lesson learned. Several, actually. Southern accents are a pain in the ass. Don't trust your ears when your brain knows better. Children are awful little predators who feast on any misstep or sign of weakness. Swearing a lot can make one a little bit cooler, if only temporarily and if only with the tough kids. Finally, it seemed that accuracy and precision were concepts in which I believed much more strongly than anyone around me.