Monday, August 18, 2008

Mrs. Key

Mrs. Key taught 3rd grade, and she turned my little life upside down. I remember, back then, we stayed with one teacher for almost the entire day. We'd have special teaches for Art and Gym, but other than that, one teacher would teach us everything.

We'd quickly learn our teacher's favorite topic. One would lean more heavily on science; another more heavily of history; Mrs. Key -- Lord, save her -- was a fanatic about spelling. And I am the world's worst speller. Even to this day, I can barely spell the word cat. Nowadays, we have spellcheck, so it doesn't really matter. Back then, it was more of a problem. Mrs. Key turned into into a catastrophe.

She gave two spelling tests each week. You took home a list of words on Monday, memorized them, and then on Tuesday you took the first test. She marked them, returned them to you, and gave you one more night to study them. Then on Wednesday you retook the test.

Mrs. Key put up a huge scoreboard on the wall, so that we could all see how well or poorly kids were doing on their spelling tests. My rank was always way down at the bottom. At that age, any sort of ranking system hooked deeply into our DNA. I actually got taunted on the playground for my bad spelling.

Mrs. Key hit students with a ping-pong paddle. She would take offenders out in the hall. The rest of us would sit in the room counting the whack! whack! whacks! and giggling, but it was nervous laughter. I never got paddled, but I lived in fear. I was sure my day would come. In my mind, it had nothing to do with transgressing. It was just something that happened to you, at random.

Mrs. Key chastised you if you asked to go to the bathroom. She did this in front of the whole class. I remember one kid standing in front of her, holding his crotch and jumping up and down while Mrs. Key delivered a long lecture about how recess was for taking care of business, not for playing.

One day, about an hour after recess, I realized I had to pee. I looked up at the clock. Still two hours before school ended. Would I be able to wait that long? Twenty minutes later I was in agony. But I didn't dare ask Mrs. Key if I could go. So far, I'd managed to avoid the humiliating lectures, and I didn't think I'd be able to handle one now without crying in front of the class.

I started shivering. My body was actually going into little convulsions from trying to hold my pee in. Then, in a rush, it came out. The warm pee ran down my leg and formed a puddle on the floor by my desk. I looked around. No one had noticed. Slowly, inch-by-inch, I pushed backwards with my feet until my desk wasn't immediately near the puddle. I managed to maneuver myself and my desk so that it looked like the puddle could have come from one of several kids.

It was getting near the end of the day, now, and I thought maybe school would end without anyone noticing the puddle or the wet stains on my Pants. Then a little girl named Cindy got up to sharpen her pencil, almost stepped in my pee, screamed, and said, "There's water on the floor!"

Mrs. Key glanced up from her desk and barked, "Well, get some paper towels and clean it up!" And I sat and watch -- horrified -- as Cindy mopped up my pee. I was too much of a coward to take responsibility.

That year, I developed stomach problems. I had a three-block walk to school, and halfway there, every day, I would throw up. My mom kept making my breakfasts lighter and lighter. She even tried serving me ice cream for breakfast. I threw it up.

I remember feeling that if I kept myself really calm, I might be able to hold my breakfast in. So I'd keep my breathing regular and walk to school really slowly. I felt like a bubble that just might not pop, as long as no one touched it. But if anything jostled my senses -- A loud car going by, a kid saying hi, a thought about Mrs. Key's ping-pong paddle -- I'd barf.

Finally, my mom took me to the doctor and be prescribed what I called "the yucky green medicine." I had to drink a small cup of the vile stuff every morning. I'm surprised it didn't make me throw up. In fact, it steadied my nerves and allowed me to get to school with my breakfast in my stomach. I didn't know until I was grown up that the green meds were tranquilizers.

The next year the faculty did some shifting around, and as if I was cursed for something bad I had done in a former life, I got Mrs. Key again.

At the time, my best friend was Joe Frommer. Joe and I had sat next to each other in 3rd grade. We spent every recess playing together (instead of taking care of business) and we rushed off to each-others' houses after school. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that Joe's friendship kept me sane throughout 3rd grade.

But in 4th grade, Mrs. Key specifically demanded that Joe be moved to another class. She felt he and I were unnaturally close, and she wanted us separated.

Something in me snapped. I couldn't have put it into words, but I just knew I couldn't let this year be like the last one. So I made my mom drill me on spelling words. I don't remember having much of a social life in 4th grade. I remember going home after school and memorizing lists of words, and then making my mom quiz me on them until I was perfect.

That year, I went from the bottom of the scoreboard to the top. I aced test after test. I became the class champion. Mrs. Key used me as an example. She made me tutor other kids.

I decided I loved Mrs. Key and that she was the best teacher ever. I used to go over to her house after school. We'd sit, drink lemonade, and watch her husband mow the lawn. Once, Mrs. Key took me out to a malt shop. This was the 70s, not the 50s, but Mrs. Key knew where there was this throwback soda-fountain store. She took me there, bought me a root-beer float (which I didn't like, but agreed to drink because Mrs. Key said it was good), and showed me off to the woman behind the counter. "This is my best speller," she said. The woman asked me if I could spell foreign. I tried but couldn't. I hadn't practiced foreign with my mom.

In class, Mrs. Key started this ritual: when we'd finished taking our spelling tests, we'd all turn our papers in, and she'd put the stack on the side of her desk, to grade later. Except for my paper. Mine, she'd grade right then in front of the whole class as I stood by her desk. When she was done, she'd hold it up so the whole class could see another perfect paper. Then she'd take it over to the wall and tape it by the scoreboard.

This went on for weeks, and I started to feel sick again. I started to worry that I wouldn't be able to keep up my perfect score. And I was confused. I'd never been perfect at anything else before. But I sort of wanted to fail, too.

And one day I did. I was standing by Mrs. Key's desk, as the whole class watched her grade my paper. My eyes drifted a little ways ahead of her pen, and I saw that halfway down the page, I'd misspelled Saturday. I didn't exactly misspell it; I just forgot to capitalize the S. But that was an error in Mrs. Key's class. So all I could do was to stand there and wait for her to notice it.

When she finally did notice it, I saw a huge grin form on her face. And I realized then that she wanted me to fail! I remember her writing a big -1 across the top of my test, and that's about all I remember except for floods and floods of relief washing over me.