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Fingernails, Hankies and Breakfast or Portrait of a Politically Incorrect Third Grade Teacher
Recently I had the opportunity to return to the area of my youth in the company of a longtime good friend. As we drove into the area, we passed the house of our deceased Third Grade teacher, Mrs. Crawford. The tap on our memories was opened and the stories began pouring out and we were amazed at how much of what this teacher did in good faith and by following accepted practices of the day would be unacceptable today. The names have been changed or avoided altogether to protect the innocent. Set the wayback machine to 1968:
Our grammar school is firmly ensconced in the Bible-thumping, church-going, cut-your-hair-boy South – more specifically in East Tennessee. Not really the “deep South” mind you – our portion of the state was under Yankee control for most of the Civil War, but located in an area where women were women and men were men and Third Grade teachers used the “spare the rod and spoil the child” rule..
Look Mrs. Crawford up in the Who’s Who Directory of Third Grade teachers and you would find descriptors including grandmotherly, Southern Baptist, strong willed, tea-totaler, etc. She was a tall, slightly plump matronly mummified woman to us students and always dressed like she was going to or coming from church including nice jewelry, perfectly coiffed and colored hair and a healthy dose of floral perfume. Women did not wear pants in her world. I do remember her wearing sleeveless blouses during the warmer months and we used to giggle at how the fatty flesh on the underside of her arm would swing wildly back and forth when she wrote on the board. She had a squeaky gravelly voice that, when raised and directed at you, was reminiscent of the screeching sound burning buildings made as they fell during Sherman’s march on Atlanta.
Her mission in life was to not only educate you but turn you into a model Southern citizen. You did not speak unless you were called upon. You had an assigned seat which you were expected to be in unless you had to go the bathroom, use the trashcan or pencil sharpener or report that the classroom was on fire. Don’t even think of using oaths, curses or off color mutterings. The use of “yes ma’am”, “no ma’am”, “please” and “thank you” were highly encouraged just short of whipping you with a crop. You got into line for lunch or recess – no cuts, no saves and God help you, no talking. Violating any of her rules could result in a scolding, sitting in the corner, or being paddled. None of this lily-livered being sent to the principal’s office crap. She dealt with you on her own terms and these were terms handed down by the Duke himself on dealing with damn Yankees, pesky redskins or ornery cattle barons.
Our day started with the loud, annoying ringing of the class bell drawing the line on who would be considered tardy. We then stood and loudly spoke the Pledge of Allegiance with our hands covering our hearts. Next was the Lord’s Prayer that was expected to be said with the same care and passion. She watched you to ensure your participation or she would rap your shins with a hickory stick.
After that, she would line the class up for inspection. Starting at one end of the line she would stop at each child and ask for three things:
- To see your handkerchief – She expected everyone in the class to come to school with a handkerchief in their pocket and use it! Your mother would love you later when she had to wash your booger catcher.
- To see your fingernails – They always had to be clean and trimmed. I cannot remember if chewed was okay or not.
- To know what you ate for breakfast – My answer was usually doughnuts and pop tarts washed down with a cold Frosty Root beer which was not acceptable.
If you did not have one of these three things, you would get lectured in front of all your classmates – particularly the breakfast notion. If you were repeatedly negligent, you got a note to take home to your parents to rectify the situation. About this time, my mother had joined the ranks of working mothers and was able to get me a good breakfast about half the time. The other half of the time I did eat doughnuts or pop tarts enough to receive the deadly note (no Frosties however much to my disappointment). My mother and I agreed that I would lie about my bad breakfasts to skip the chewing out unless my father was suddenly epiphanized by the arc angel of breakfast making. In the era where the Pale Male ruled supreme, he exercised his kingly prerogative to let the lackeys (consisting of my mom) do the manual labor.
Every afternoon, seemingly after recess, Mrs. C would read from the Bible. She was a huge fan of the Old Testament and there were actually parts of it (especially when it talked about fighting and wars or angels and demons fighting wars or carrying hankies or making fathers help with breakfast) that a lot of us would sit up and listen to what she read. But most afternoons, especially when it was particularly warm, there would be random thuds as eight year old skulls made sleepy contact with wooden desks. If you were especially unlucky, your head would hit a part of the desk where someone had carved an expletive about Mrs. C herself and it would be tattooed on your forehead. Granted it was backward and temporary but it could lead to a whooping.
In order to survive, I took advantage of her fascination with my drawing skills and her need to have a third grade “upper crust”. Add to it that I was a suck up and the youngest, shortest, skinniest, most immature kid in her class and you having the makings of a teacher’s pet which earned you bonuses and get out of jail free cards. The best of these was getting out of class work because I was “commissioned” to decorate the chalkboard just inside the door to the classroom during certain times of the year (Christmas, Thanksgiving, etc.). Using a giant box of colored chalk, I was given the duty of decorating the board with seasonally appropriate images. My classmates would come near me to throw things in the trash can or sharpen their pencil or throw their pencil at me while hissing, “Lucky!” or “Teacher’s Pet”. Only the keen eye of Mrs. C and my ability to outrun my entire Third Grade class on the playground kept me from payback. The bus was an entirely different matter.
While Mrs. Crawford seemed to be an unyielding taskmaster who ruled with an iron fist, she had a lighter side as well. Like a lot of grandmotherly types, Mrs. Crawford adored the holidays and made them very special for us. Our classroom would be richly decorated (not to mention me getting to do a major chalkboard drawing and getting out of class work) and we had a cool party in the gym where we exchanged gifts and drank imitation fruit julep punch and ate cookies and cake. However, there was one girl in the class that refused to participate in Christmas or Easter activities due to her religion. I thought Mrs. C was going to crack a denture as she ground her teeth together and was intent on making the girl understand that it was her way or the highway – not just with class but with participation in religious events as well. I just knew this girl was going to be relegated to a midnight bucket ride in the well or cleaning the outhouses until I found out the school did not have a well or an outhouse anymore. Fortunately, the girl was allowed to exercise her freedom of religion and Mrs. C was relegated to teeth grinding and various under-her-breath mutterings.
She also provided a daily “show and tell” opportunity and she seemed to enjoy it - especially when you had someone with the courage to come up and perform something for the class. I was particularly fond of the comedian Red Skelton at the time and remember watching his show (back during the days of variety shows being standard TV fare). Red was famous for his pantomime skits and I would occasionally try and recreate them for the class. Since I was her little Leonardo da Vinci she at least acted like my skits were funny. The rest of the class daydreamed of dropping me on my head from the monkey bars.
Despite all of this, much of it unsuitable for today’s schools, my friend and I, upon exiting our old neighborhood, realized the following that could be attributed to Mrs. Crawford:
- My friend has used a handkerchief since the third grade and I still wipe my nose on my sleeve
- My friend keeps his nails chewed short and I have gone kind of Goth-like with mine (actually my nails are still trimmed and clean but I hit one with a hammer accidently so it’s black)
- I still think about Mrs. C’s lectures when I suck down a fruity yogurt to counteract a lifetime of plowing through breakfast bars to achieve Mrs. C’s idea of a good breakfast
- BONUS: We both still use yes ma’am, no ma’am, please and thank you – but we have modernized it by including the f-bomb when we say any of them
While most of this piece is true and with all due respect to Mrs. C, you can imagine that in the true Southern story-telling tradition, liberal use of embellishments has been made. Just wanted to say “thanks” Mrs. C and that I would be happy to draw on the chalkboard for you anytime. I have no doubt that Heaven has a mandatory handkerchief policy now.