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"The Wykowski Factor"
The scariest teacher I ever had was my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Wykowski. Her first name was Mary, but we were certain no one had ever used it, not her husband, not even her parents. She was simply “Mrs. Wykowski” from the womb on.
She topped a long list of memorable runners-up in the fear factor stakes. My tandem kindergarten teachers were like something out of Ralphie’s imagination in The Christmas Story; brutal, bitter obese women who loathed children. They were a tag-team prototype of the matronly satyrs that prompted Pink Floyd to write The Wall. Following that unfortunate introduction to formal education,I had sadistic nuns instruct me in the first and second grades. From nuns, the occasional terrifying and incomprehensible whacking was far preferable to the mental terror they could inflict. The “black marks on your soul” speech delivered on the opening morning of first grade was a real attention-grabber. We sat there, mortified six-year-olds, with mouths agape while the Sisters gave us the skinny on sin, life and such. On the other hand, my secular teachers in Catholic school, Mrs. Fish and Ms. Caster, were wonderful people who never physically beat or emotionally scarred anyone. Shifting to public school for third grade, my teacher was thankfully placid- the rare male teacher in elementary school and a rookie to boot, Mr. Tincher. My fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Snyder, was extremely fearsome, but she became sick in February and we finished the year with a 23-year-old student teacher who knew less about life than we did. We had dodged a major bullet.
Then came fifth grade. Having been assigned old lady Snyder the year before, my luck was bound to change, I told myself. The odds were with me. I thought I might get the daft thirty-ish hippie teacher, Ms. Sarkeen, who wore embroidered blue jean pantsuits. Rumor had it she got high in her VW bug in the school parking lot each morning. She emitted new-age/ spacey/ happy vibe most of the time, although occasionally repeating complete lessons in succession, oblivious to her short-term memory lapses. This is the teacher I wanted. She kept munchies in the classroom and hugged a lot.
And then there was the aptly named Mr. Armstrong, my US History teacher. Nobody wanted to hug him. Through the memory lens of more than three decades’ hindsight, he looked just like Dr. Marvin Monroe, The Simpsons psychologist. Mr. Armstrong came with his own array of odors. His room had the stench of a rancid tobacco shop. We thought he smoked cigars and pipes simultaneously when we were at recess. And then there were his pits. Everyday, Mr. Armstrong’s short-sleeved dress shirts were drenched with ten-inch diameter perspiration circles at his underarms, a fact emphasized by Mr. Armstrong’s habit of locking his hands behind his head while he looked upward from his seat while pontificating on matters historical. We instinctively tried to put our heads under our desks when he flexed his pits most foul.
But all this was mere child’s play compared to the anxiety Mrs. Wykowski caused. In her knee boots, Wykowski was 6’1” with flowing unkempt red hair; a frightful creature. In 1973-74, we didn’t know about PMS, bi-polar disorder, angry bowel syndrome or road rage, but it’s clear now that Mrs. Wykowski had these maladies and likely several more. Today, she would have been gender tested. Her voice held a masculine tenor that boomed like thunder when amplified. We knew she eschewed certain accepted feminine hygiene regimens as she wore a sleeveless dress late in the year and raised her right arm to point at the board. Her unshaven pits prompted countless student nightmares. Why the state of Indiana would possibly grant such a foul beast a teaching license was beyond any of us. It was like giving Charles Manson a police badge.
Mr. Armstrong and Ms. Sarkeen might be sweaty and baked respectively, but they didn’t cause utter panic and sheer dread the way Mrs. Wykowski did. We shook in our shoes when summoned to her desk. Her “four cups of coffee” breath was noxious. Her mere gaze could cower an NFL linebacker into meek submission. She would have dominated roller derby had she chosen that career path.
Much like my unmarried, alcoholic aunt Sheila, Wykowski’s moods swung like an erratic pendulum. Some days she would pat a random student on the head- we were sure it was a precursor to a strangling. Occasionally, she would throw a student a compliment, usually one of the smarter girls. The boys remained united in their fear and loathing of Old Lady Wykowski. Although she was probably actually in her early 40s at the time, we guess her age to be 78.
Seemingly in a benign mood one morning, Mrs. Wykowski turned in a split second into the drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket on a classmate named Greg Boswell when he absent-mindedly cracked his knuckles, hand-in-hand style, with all eight knuckles popping at once. Mrs. Wykowski stopped speaking in mid-sentence. We sat frozen, our hearts no longer beating. She crept like a cat burglar, slowly, stealthily, toward Boswell. I prayed for his mortal soul. He looked like a deer caught in headlights. Mrs. Wykowski’s thunderous voice echoed, “The first thing I can teach you is manners! Do you know the meaning of the words ‘rude,’ ‘obnoxious’ and ‘detention’?” We cringed through the lengthy browbeating that followed. Boswell endured the lambasting in his own private purgatory.
Having slavishly kissed Mrs. Wykowski’s ass since August, I was to feel Boswell’s pain all too acutely a few weeks later. I had the hiccups, and like Boswell, I was oblivious to this fact. Mrs. Wykowski looked at me strangely and said; “I heard you were talking about me on the school bus!” Her voice reverberated off the walls. We all talked about Wykowski on the bus, daily. We cursed her existence, made fun of her clothes and imagined vague plots of revenge we would pull off when we were adults.
I’d clearly been snitched out.
“No, never! Not me.” I squirmed, lying profusely. I would have admitted to wearing girls underwear at that moment if it could extricate me from this interrogation. I was dizzy, the fluorescent lights were swirling from the ceiling.
Wykowski moved in for the kill. “Quinton Clark told me what you said. I know all of it!” She looked rabid, ravenous, deranged. Clark, a buck-toothed, booger-eating kid from the apartment building across from mine, had squealed. That pathetic asswipe. We all hated playing basketball with Clark. His red, white and blue ball was dotted with boogers. We passed that ball like a hot potato. But right then, I had bigger fish to fry than Quinton Clark. I had no idea how I was going to get out of that classroom alive. Had I swallowed my tongue as a reflex to frantic fear? I stammered, shivered and panicked just short of crapping myself. Then Mrs. Wykowski grinned most strangely and said, “Do you still have the hiccups?”
Hiccups? I wasn’t sure if I still had a large intestine.
“No ma’am. They’re gone.” Along with ten years of my life expectancy.
We graduated the 5th grade, of course, and though we had forever shed ourselves of Ms. Sarkeen and Mr. Armstrong, we would cross Mrs. Wykowski’s path one final time when she unexpectedly cast a pail over the most idyllic June afternoon. Two weeks into summer vacation and our Little League team, the Reds, had just steamrolled a hapless opponent. Our coach was hauling us to the Dairy Queen for post-game treats in his white Chevy van and all was right with the world.
Then, rising up dramatically in the distance from a very green lawn, we spotted a tall, knee-booted, unkempt redhead in flowing garb mowing her lawn, with one hand on her hip and the other pushing her lawn mower as if she hated it, like it was a student. And I promise you, she did dress that way even mowing her lawn.
All discussion ceased. Twelve boys hit the floor of the van simultaneously. We held our collective breath. In a hushed tone, one of my teammates told our coach to “floor it.” He looked confused. Some of us were screaming. Others wept openly. In our blind panic, we somehow believed that if Mrs. Wykowski saw us driving by, looking at her mowing her lawn, we’d surely pay the ultimate price. Several decades later, I still wonder about that. We ate our ice cream in sullen silence at the Dairy Queen that day, having brushed far too close with unsavory fates.