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!”

Cerebral Palsy

Lost in Space

 Lost in Space – 1964  (Mary Poppins)

“Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!” yelled a third grader as she got into the robot’s part, waving her arms around like a frantic parent. I  got stuck playing a bad guy alien and walked mummy-like toward the girl who had nabbed the prime role of Penny Robinson. I added head jerks and let out,“Beep! Boop! Ding!” in the way an alien would do as I chased the Robinson family.  “Run!” yelled the good guys as I followed the retreating kids and raised my arms to seem scarier.   

At St. Edmund’s School my classmates and I recreated scenes from hit tv shows at recess. This week’s television obsession was “Lost in Space.” We girls vied for roles each day and half-imitated/ half-made up episodes about the Robinsons in outer space. During this Tuesday’s recess, I did not see the skinny new girl right behind me. Skinny Girl mimicked my spastic left arm movements and limping left leg.  A group of first graders giggled and encouraged the newcomer’s accurate imitation of my cerebral palsy crookedness. When I turned to see who was laughing, a popular seventh grader had cut across the playground on her way to the school’s front office and noticed Skinny Girl’s shenanigans.  

She yanked the performer by her fake-crippled left arm. “What are you doing?” she demanded. Before the child could answer, Seventh Grader lit into her. “How dare you? Don’t you see she’s crippled? How would you like to have to walk lopsided?  You think it’s funny?  Funny to be born with a birth defect – to be slower and weaker than everyone else?  Wait until I tell Sister Joan what you did!” And all during her lecture Seventh Grader shook the girl’s arm as other kids gathered around. First, they stared at Skinny Girl looking like a dish rag someone was twisting the water out of. Then they looked at me. Pity and sadness shone on each kid’s face. Had they always looked at me that way?   

Next Seventh Grader yanked whimpering Skinny Girl to stand in front of me.  “Apologize right now!”  

The younger girl’s navy blue skirt had a safety pin holding it up at her waist, and all that shaking had pulled the white blouse out of its tucked-in position. I noticed that her hem was frayed and stained. Also, the girl’s thin black hair was half-in rubber band pigtails and half-out. I thought that I should be apologizing to her for the mess of the way she looked. 

“Go ahead. Say you’re sorry,” Seventh Grader told her. 

The young girl stared at her untied, dirty saddle oxfords and whispered, “Sorry.”  

“Louder! So she can hear you.” 

“I can hear her,” I said, looking down at my own ugly, scuffed brown corrective shoes. 

“You ok?” Seventh Grader asked me, and I nodded without looking up. I knew if I said anything else, I’d be crying through the rest of recess. Skinny Girl was half-dragged towards the front office.

An empathic third grader put her arm around my shoulder, and the whole “Lost in Space” game was shot to shit. “That kid is just a stupid Yankee from Shreveport,” my friend said. I heaved a sigh and felt even sorrier for Skinny Girl. 

“Gotta pee,” I said before turning to run to the bathroom. Once safe inside a stall, I felt fortunate that I’d chosen one with a lock that actually worked. The words “crippled” and “birth defect” bounced around my brain over and over: “crippled…defect…defect…defect…crip…crip…defect…defect.”   I turned the words into a type of music I heard on KVPI.  “defect, defect, deco, deco, zydeco, zydeco, zydeco.” 

I tapped my black umbrella on the floor a few times and looked around the mess of a nursery.  I removed my neat black hat with white flowers on it and patted my neat brown bun. Two small children looked up at me. “First, we must clean your untidy room,” I said with a confident smile. I snapped the fingers of both hands. Music played, and a robin sang outside the nursery window. As I sang a song about sugar and medicine, I taught the boy and girl how to make their room as neat and sweet as I was. With a whistle here and umbrella taps there, the beds were made, toys were put away, and the room was “practically perfect in every way.”  I even had the robin accompany me in the song. The children loved my magic and we became instant best friends. Without warning, the song ended and a long ringing erupted from the hall.

Recess was over. I flushed the unused toilet, wet my fingers in the sink, ran them through my hair, and looked in the mirror to make sure my eyes were dry before I rushed outside to line up outside Sister Grace’s classroom door.