Growing up in a small town in the South, or anywhere for that matter, ain’t easy. Everybody knows everything about everybody: when you’re drunk or sober, when you’re broke or rich; even when you fart. In fact, they know so much that when you do fart, they can tell you what you’ve been eating at ten paces. No privacy in small town America.
When I returned home from the War With The Army (otherwise known as the fifth grade spent at military school) I began more conflicts than I had ever encountered in my 11 previous years.
My town was a One Town. There was one of everything. One Baptist Church, one Methodist, one Episcopal and so on. Most people went to either the Methodist one or the Baptist one, and they were only a block apart. I was adventurous. Since I had a parent at each church, I managed to take in both flavors of Jesus. Sometimes during the same service. I would listen to the music at one and then scramble down the street and catch the choir and the final hymn at the other one, especially if Mama was playing the organ.
And the same process was repeated on Sunday night. I would go to Youth Fellowship at the Methodist Church and then go sit on the front row of the Baptist Church and watch Mama making it with the Hammond organ. Oddly enough, Daddy managed to miss all of this church-going back and forth. He stayed home with Ed Sullivan, Jack Benny and Guy Lombardo.
Returning home after the fifth grade I re-enrolled in both Sunday and Grammar School in the Sixth Grade. I came home from school on the first day and said, “Mama, Miss E is my teacher.” And I came home on Sunday and said, “Mama, Miss E is my Sunday School teacher.” Mama gave me one of those looks and said, “That’s too much Miss E.”
Let me tell you about this sixth grade woman. She was what they called a spinster or, as Clare Booth Luce puts it, “What nature abhors, an old maid., a frozen asset” She was stern, strict and hateful, both at Grammar and Sunday events. Miss E. was that “word that is not used in polite society outside of a kennel.”
She despised me from the moment I walked into her class. Oh, I was precocious to the max, probably obnoxious, actually. And I’m sure I gave her nothing but fits at all times. Her idea of punishment for misdeeds was to have you write something thousands of times. My something was always the phrase “be quiet”. And I probably wrote those two words 60,000 times that year.
Everything was regimented in her class right down to where you put your pencil on your desk. And she constantly checked to see that all objects were in their place. She had a grade book where she kept a constant record of every infraction of the rules. Your name was on the left side of the page and there was a box to the right for every day in the school year. She would sit at her desk and look up and down the aisles to see if you of some offense and if you had erred and strayed (like lost sheep) from her norm she would put a black dot by your name. But she would look over the rims of her glasses at you, put the tip of her pencil on her tongue and make certain that you saw she was putting the dot by your name. And that dot was a passport to hell fire.
My particular dot to hell fire came out at Christmas, normally a time of peace and love. Forget it in that young stable. It was the custom in those days for each child to draw a name for a person you would give a gift. These gifts were placed under the tree which stood just inside the door of the room all lit up and festooned for the season.
One day Miss E made the announcement that went like this: “If you have presents for someone other than the one whose name you drew, do NOT place those gifts under the tree. Leave them in the back of the room and distribute them privately.” I wasn’t there that day and did not hear the latest rule she had set down.
This also happened to be the year they introduced black Christmas wrapping paper sprinkled with glitter. Being a Queen in Training, I thought this was the hottest thing since the hula hoop and I wrapped all my friends’ presents with this trendy new stuff. And then I came to school the next morning, walked into the class and dropped all my gifts right under the tree where I was not suppose to. I was wildly proud of how they looked and very full of myself.
All morning Miss E quietly seethed with rage, a rage I was not aware of until morning recess when we all went out to the baseball park to play games. Arriving at the park she held me back and told me to sit in the bleachers. There she began to lecture me on what I had done wrong by putting those gifts under the tree. Who knew? This is what that woman said to an 11-year-old 6th grader: “Ricky, Jesus drove the money changers out of the temple and I’m going to drive you out of my classroom.” I’m not making this up, you know. She really said that to me.
I was dumbfounded and when I got home I told Mama what she had said to me. Mama dropped her Canasta cards and went straight to the school house and the principal’s office. I don’t know what happened, but Miss E was at least civil to me from then on. Well, sorta.
Years later when she was mowing some grass she cut off her big toe. I was delighted.
And years later my phone rang and someone said, "Miss E" is dead. All I could say was "Good".
It took me years to realize how hateful she had been to me. I have never forgotten nor forgiven. Miss E, I guess I’ll meet you in hell.
This story is true in every sense. Only the names have been shortened to protect the guilty.