September, with its shorter days and cool nights, reminds most grown-ups of their school days. While some recall playground fun and pine for the old days, others say it was a dark time of never fitting in. For me, school was a smorgasbord that changed daily; with some teachers offering me feasts while others left me with a bitter taste in my mouth. I suspect, school is still an emotional buffet.
Like other school children of my generation, I was vaccinated with the experimental polio vaccines, shot up with anti-biotics and (in first grade) sliced open in the ubiquitous tonsillectomy. My surgery was quick, but painful. For the next 10 days, I was off from school and in front of the TV. One morning while cutting out my new paper dolls, my nose bled. The dolls and their carefully scissored dresses were ruined. For days, the bleeding continued, as the doctors warned it would. Two generations of my family pampered me, including my youngest aunt who usually amused herself by teasing me. In our freezer, were more ice creams and cool treats than I had ever seen before.
Dad entertained me by replicating my tinny recovery-voice. We’d have pretend conversations in those high pitched sounds until Mom called us for dinner. Even our dinners were my choices, “Spaghetti, Adrienne? Or would you like pastina with butter?”
Two years later, I met my favorite teacher; Mrs. Bessier. Tall and regal, her tightly permed hair was both downy and snow white. To my child-eyes, she was probably 100 years old. Soon she became my most ardent fan and strictest task-master. Mrs. Bessier encouraged me to read grown-up books, convinced me to do a solo in our assembly program (I still know all the words to Molly Malone and will sing it if requested). She even read my book reports aloud in class-making me a star among my peers.
She also chided me on my dismal math skills, but I readily forgave her pestering. She was the first grown-up who wasn’t family, whom I loved and believed loved me back. At the year’s end, she had secured me a seat in the gifted 4th grade class. I wanted the summer to fly by. I couldn’t wait to walk the 5 blocks back to school in September. It was a short lived thrill.
Fourth grade gifted teacher, Mrs. Reiter didn’t need her colleague adding another student to her roster, especially one who only excelled in language arts. She wasn’t impressed by my prose or reading choices. She rarely addressed me directly in our English lessons, although my hand shot up like a rocket. Instead she waited for math time when my bowed head tried to cover my number struggles. “Let’s see if Adrienne knows,” she’d sneer in my direction. Whatever vitriolic diatribe she’d foist upon me, it all sounded like, I’ll get you my pretty and your little dog too. At home, I didn’t speak of my suffering. My parents looked over each of my declining report card entries, but neither questioned me. The two senior generations at home believed teachers were infallible. If I was failing, the fault lay in myself.
Fall rushed by like dried leaves in a wind gust. Before I knew it, my friends and I were building forts for our snowball fodder. Like all the school years before fourth grade, the seasons marked the time. I was prepared to suffer in silence until the last day of school. Then Mrs. Reiter hit me.
As we did every Thursday, after our spelling pre-tests, we traded with our partners and graded each other’s papers. When I was done, I returned Robert Peterman’s test while he haltingly checked my words. I don’t remember hearing Mrs. Reiter coming down the aisle behind me, but I can’t forget the blow of her palm as she shoved me into Robert while shouting, “Why don’t you have a test in front of you?”
I told my mother I was never returning to school. She explained children couldn’t leave school in fourth grade. I asked her to speak to our principal. She didn’t. Instead, I was told to forget about the incident. I couldn’t.
Looking back, I clearly see the connection between my tonsillectomy and my teaching career. Before surgery, I had to soar above my fears. In recovery, I was bloody but survived.
I had become a teacher not only to share my joy of reading, but also support those children who were tortured in school. Thank you, Mrs. Bessier for being the gust that set me aloft. Thanks (begrudgingly) to Mrs. Reiter who wittingly or not, honed my survival skills.
Who could have guessed—the metaphor for school is surgery?