1960s · Cerebral Palsy

Book Pincher

  Book Pincher  1967  

Mr. B was my first male teacher.  If he represented the world of masculine educators, I hoped to go to a Catholic college run by nuns.  Mr. B. taught seventh grade, and most of what he said or did floated above my consciousness.  Turning twelve gave me the confidence to better escape school’s daily dose of boredom.  I started each subject’s lesson as the bespectacled model student I was famous for being. My three-ring binder was filled with looseleaf paper and sat on my desk below the pen and pencil that shared the narrow writing utensil groove of my wooden desk. I made all A’s and turned in every assignment neatly written and on time.

Me in 7th or 8th grade

On a drizzly November morning Mr. B. said, “Get out your science books and turn to Chapter Thirteen on page 262.”  In eleven seconds I pulled the book from the desk’s metal under seat container and opened it to the right page. Mr. B. began the lesson drone from his wooden podium at the front of the room; however, after he had asked student volunteers to read book sections aloud, he paced up and down the rows to discourage student shenanigans.  I forgot my typical shyness and volunteered right away to read aloud.  The teacher was prone to call on cute girls first. So I bided my time, and my hand was up as soon a cheerleader had finished Section One, and B. asked for a new reading volunteer.  This time I got picked (probably because Section Two was about Classification Kingdoms and included lots of bolded scientific terms).  Multi-syllabic words could not intimidate me.  I read well, and B. himself sometimes mispronounced words.  I looked at B.’s shining bald head after I finished reading and nodded a couple of times as I watched his flappy lips move, but I took in none of the meaning of his words.  I stared ahead as I slid my novel I had underneath the Life Science textbook to the top.  I held my fake focus on the teacher even as I opened Little Men to the bookmarked page.  I was a third into Louisa May Alcott’s novel and was eager to reenter Jo’s world as head mistress at Plumfield Academy for orphans.  As soon as Mr. B got his third volunteer reader going, I entered my book.  The stress and worry of seventh grade disappeared. I forgot about my stupid hair, oily complexion, and big feet. I did not care that some girls in my class were “going out” with the same boys that two years ago all of my female classmates agreed were “gross and stupid.”  I loved Jo’s compassion, even for the unruly Dan.  The fictional students were valued and molded in marvelous, nonthreatening ways.  I let my former successes at reading a book inside a book keep me engrossed in all things Plumfield, especially the scenes with Jo and wild Dan. 

In the past I had always caught a whiff of B.’s Brylcreem when he got near my row (Why did an almost bald man need hair stuff?), and I would slide my novel back beneath my textbook like a seasoned card magician.  

Maybe Mr. B. forgot to smooth down his seventeen strands of hair that morning.

Maybe I was coming down with a cold.

Maybe Jo’s expert handling of Dan’s rule breaking made me believe I was at Plumfield.

I felt a sharp pain on her upper right arm, exactly on my chicken pox vaccine scar. 

My “Hey!” came out before I realized what I was doing.  B. had used his go-to class management strategy on me: a pinch and a twist to a kid’s arm with his long thumb nail and dirty index fingernail.  I had seen purple and red marks on arms before – usually on boys’ arms- and usually for rowdy stuff like chalk throwing and spit balls but had never been pinched myself.

“What is this, Miss Ginger Ann Keller” he said as he grabbed Little Men off of my desk. Is our lesson on life forms and kingdom classifications not grabbing your attention?” 

I was not shocked enough to cry even though I could break out a crowd of tears faster than Elvis got girls screaming.  Mr. B. admonished me for my sneaky ways, but I heard only the zydeco…zydeco…zydeco of the struggling electric school fans. 

A bulky man with long fingernails pointed a hairy finger at me.  I was standing and holding out my empty wooden bowl.  “More?!  More!?” said Baldy.  I nodded and said, “Yes, please.  May I have some more?” and I felt the fear of hundreds of uniform-clad kids seated at rows and rows of wooden tables behind me.  Baldy started singing insults at me while waving a yardstick like a baton. He had a nun to his right who accompanied his singing with a harmonica. Baldy used my name to express his hate:  “Ginger Ann/ Ginger Ann /What a mess of a girl is Ginger Ann!”  And all the kids beat time on the tables with wooden rulers and echoed his song. “Ginger Ann/Ginger Ann/ What a mess of a girl is Ginger Ann!” Then the nun gave her harmonica a break to add specificity to their chant. “She trips. She falls. /And her face is afire with zits galore./  She thinks she has brains and wits. /But she’ll never get liked cause she has no tits.”  And the room’s “Ginger Ann/Ginger Ann /What a mess of a girl is Ginger Ann” continued. The rhythmic sounds beat me down to my knees and I tried to escape by crawling under the tables, but the kids all kicked me with their saddle oxfords and laughed as I crawled faster while the “Ginger Ann” song got louder. The table extended for miles, and the nun got back to her harmonica as Baldy chased me by running between the endless rows of tables. Then an extra hard kick on my left ankle forced me to stop crawling.

“You gotta go up front,” said the girl who sat to my left. 

“What are you waiting for?” asked B. “ Sign my detention form and be here after school if you want your book of,” and he read the cover, “Little Men back!” 

I felt the suppressed giggles from all sides as I walked to the teacher’s desk and counted the floor tiles. I made sure to not drag my left foot and I tried to hide my shorter left with my good right arm. I felt relief that I’d washed my hair the night before so the long waves of boring brown hair that now covered my face were not greasy.  Three tiles away from B’s desk I tripped on a baton that stuck out from under a future majorette’s desk. It was not a fall-down trip, just a hiccup of a stumble like a possible dance step if I had possessed an iota of coordination.  A big-toothed boy loud-whispered, “Don’t fall for your Little Men now.” 

Mr. B. slapped his yard stick on his podium to say he had attempted to control the laughter from half the class.  I scrawled my name on the detention notepad and ignored the drop of wetness on the paper. He covered his mouth and coughed.

Did B. put his hairy, dirty, long-nailed fist to his mouth to hide his own laugh, or did he really need to clear his throat? I thought.  I retreated to my desk without time to count tiles because a song/chant formed in my head. “Book Pincher./ Arm Pincher. / What a mess of a man is Book Pincher/ Arm Pincher./ May he rot in a pot of reptilian snot!”

Sisters

Playing School

Emile, Ginger, Gayle, Kelly ready for school, 1965

When I was seven years old I tried my hand at what would become my future profession.

On a late summer afternoon, I smoothed the front of a stiff red and white church dress, brought my tanned shoeless legs together, repositioned my white plastic headband, and looked my class over from the white brick fireplace mantle that raised me three inches above those I’d be instructing that day. Kelly, age three, wearing light blue shorts and a sleeveless white cotton crop top sat barefoot and crosslegged on the carpeted living room floor; she held a Big Chief tablet and a red crayon. Gayle, age five, wearing a faded hand-me-down t-shirt with a never worn navy blue school uniform skirt, sat erect on a small wooden chair and tapped her brand new letter-practicing book with a pencil and wriggled her toes as she stretched her feet to touch the legs of a red and yellow plastic chalk board that came with my special surprise birthday gift that year: a Suzy Smart Deluxe Doll Set!  

Suzy Smart with her chalkboard and desk

Suzy Smart, dressed in a white blouse under a red plaid jumper and standing two feet tall, completed the class and sat stiffly in her own red and yellow plastic desk. I smiled down at my class of three and held up a piece of chalk to draw a large capital letter “A” on the chalk board. 

“Today we practice our A’s.” I established eye-contact with each student and added, “Y’all must draw ten A’s for me. Now go!”  Gayle took to the assignment like a Cajun to hot boudin. Having to use her lap was all that kept her from making uniform A’s. Kelly tried her first A, but the slanted lines were uneven and her letter did not look like the teacher’s. 

“I’m gonna make the little ‘l’s’,” she said and started covering her first page with a letter she liked.

I focused on the obedient ones. “Good job, Gayle,” I said.  Suzy gave me her straight-forward stare. “Nice listening, Suzy.” 

Then I knelt down next to Kelly. “Your ‘l’s’ are very good, but we are working on ‘A’s.’  Here. Let me show you how.” I put my hand over her fist and guided the red crayon through the perfect A formation. “Like this.”  

Kelly pushed aside a stray strand from a pigtail and said, “OK,” and continued to drew more l’s. 

“I said ten letters and you made like fifty-five l’s already. You need to learn your A’s.”  

“No A’s in my name.” 

“Good! You know how to spell your name, but I’m teaching all the letters today.”

“ ‘A’ is the very first letter,” said Gayle as she completed her tenth “A” and gave us all, including Suzy, proud smiles. She wrapped a long strand of jet black hair behind her ear and waited for further instructions.

“How many letters?” asked Kelly.

Getting a bit of teacher inspiration, I said, “We should sing the A-B-C song!”

The human students stood up to belt out “A,B,C,D,E,F,G…”  Susie listened. As Kelly screamed out the final Z, she grabbed Gayle’s hands, and led her in circles for the “Now I know my ABC’s” part.

I knew I was losing control of my class.  “OK. Good job, y’all. Now let’s practice the second letter – B.”  The dancing pupils added impromptu hip-shaking for the song’s end.  “Sit down, class, sit down.”  Both obeyed, but first Kelly traded her red crayon for Gayle’s new pencil.

“Hey. Give it back,” said Gayle.

“Just let me borrow it.”

“You suppose to ask.”

“Can I use your pencil?”

“Please.”

“Pleeeease.”

“Say pretty please.”

“Pretty please, ya dumb sneeze.”

“She called me ‘dumb,’ Teacher.”

Kelly stuck her tongue out at the snitch. I clapped my hands together. “Class. Y’all gotta listen.” Gayle snatched her pencil back and bounced the crayon off Kelly’s pert pug nose. Kelly grabbed the letter practice book and ran behind me.

“I’m agonna rip this up,” she said. Gayle could not wait for the teacher’s help. She knocked over both Suzy and her desk as she rushed after Kelly. 

I tried keeping the girls apart, but Kelly danced behind me and moved the book in circles around her face. “Na! Na! Na! You can’t get me,” she chanted right before Gayle got ahold of her right pigtail. The letter book fell, the chalk board collapsed, and Kelly sprang into fight mode. With me between them, both girls got fistfuls of hair. For several seconds the hair-pulling tug-of-war was a stalemate. Gayle’s longer arms gave her an advantage, but Kelly’s hotter temper made it a fair fight.

“Stop it! Y’all are wrong, wrong! Stop!” I said as I got out from between them.  Kelly was biting her stuck-out tongue to concentrate. Gayle held both of her sister’s pigtails when Kelly dropped her sister’s hair strands. Her smaller stature lacked the force she needed to make Gayle release the pigtails, so Kelly leaned back a bit and kicked her left foot high enough to get her foe right in the tee-heinie. The taller girl let go of the shorter one’s hair and fell to the carpet. She put both hands over the place of pain and let loose the “OWWWWW’s”

“That’s what you get,” said Kelly.

Gayle moaned like a dying opossum.

I sat on the wounded girl’s chair in defeat. Kelly tapped a line of dots on the fallen chalkboard as Gayle moaned on the floor. The taps and the owww’s melded into a zydeco…zydeco…zydeco rhythm in my head.

I looked out the room’s picture window to see a black and white world. A door marked ‘Fire Escape’ appeared to the right of the window. I walked to and through the door and looked down a narrow London street. Four mop-headed guys rushed past me. I gasped when the last one turned back and said, “Hurry! This way, luv.” I ran to join George and the three other Beatles. An old, clean man with round spectacles passed me. “Outta me way! I’m parading,” he said. I wore a short purple mini-dress and groovy white boots. In my left hand I held a beautician’s comb. “Here I come, George,” I said and sped past the grandpa. I followed John, Paul, George, and Ringo down alleys, through doors, and over fences before I thought, “Why are we running?”  Grandpa gained on me and as if to answer my mental question said, “They’re getting closer, lads!” From around the corner sped sixty-two screaming girls!  George reached for my right hand and pulled me into a limo parked on the street. I squeezed between George and John. Paul smiled hello and Ringo tapped my knee with his drum sticks. I held on to George’s hand and John tweeked my nose and kissed my cheek. To hide my nervous joy, I started styling their hair. First, I combed George’s and then leaned forward to comb Paul’s and Ringo’s. John pulled his cap low over his hair, so I turned to Grandpa. “I ain’t got much hair, ya cheeky girl, but you could massage me bum,” he said. Paul winked at me and told Grandpa, “Stop being such a mixer now, ya old troublemaker.” The car braked in a flash and we all tumbled out the limo and through a stage door. Cops held back new crowds of hysterical girls. I lost George’s hand but kept up with the band down dark halls, past dusty props, and through curtained passageways. I saw a light ahead and anticipated a magical stage, but going through the final black curtain led me to the white raised brick hearth of my parents’s fireplace.

Kelly and Gayle held tennis rackets and were strumming them like guitars.  “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah,” sang Gayle, and Kelly shook her hips and moved her head back and forth fast enough for her bangs to keep rhythm with the “yeah, yeah, yeahs.” The rubble of my alphabet lesson littered the living room floor.  I began picking up chalk, crayons, a pencil, and writing tablets as my little sisters lost themselves in their music.

I sat on the formerly wounded sister’s chair in defeat and decided teaching was not for me.