Best of the Boards
Like all Monday mornings in my classroom, this one brought with it a small measure of insanity. It was the first week in October, and here in the mountains the mornings were starting to get chilly. I was standing at the cloakroom door answering “Good Morning, Miss Johnson” from twenty-three first-graders and trying to straighten out the noisy traffic jam as they crowded in to hang up jackets and put lunch sacks on the shelf.
Quiet little Martha Durbin rushed through, knocking Jimmy Reston flat on his bottom as she went past. Jimmy, face scrunched up, sat there on the floor trying to decide if he was hurt and how offended he should be. This kind of interaction with Martha was outside his experience. It was outside all of our experiences.
Breathing hard, her face red and tear-tracked, Martha threw her jacket at a hook and slammed her lunch box onto the shelf. She pushed her way out of the cloakroom, stomped over to her chair, and sat down, her little hands fisted and her jaw clenched tight.
Martha wasn’t what you would call pretty, but she was cute enough in a tomboyish way. Auburn braids tied off in red ribbons. Bangs cut short. Long dark lashes surrounding big shy hazel eyes. Front teeth missing. Freckles everywhere. She often had scabs on her knees and scratches on her arms and legs. Her clothes were old, clean, and carefully mended hand-me-downs, but there was nothing unusual about that around here. She was always quiet and reserved.
I threaded my way through the clots of noisy children over to Martha’s table. I looked around the classroom. Time to exert control. “Okay class! Good morning and let’s get started. Everyone to their seats!”
I ignored the scrambling and not very quiet whispering and got down on one knee at face level with Martha. “Are you all right?”
Martha knuckled her eyes, and wiped her nose on her arm. I searched the many pockets of my teacher’s smock until I found a tissue. Martha’s eyes, lashes still shining with tears, slowly left the table in front of her and lifted to meet mine. One at a time, she unfisted her hands. I reached over and wiped her face. “Here.”
She took the tissue from me.
Martha blew and then finished cleaning her face. She began twisting the tissue between both hands. Sighing, I reached over and retrieved the damp wad.
“I’m sorry, Miss Johnson,” she said. “I didn’t mean to hurt Jimmy.”
“Oh, I don’t think you hurt anything but his dignity,” I replied. “But what do we do when we accidentally bump into someone?”
“Apologize,” she whispered. “Do I have to? Now?”
“If you think you should,” I said, “then it’s probably best to get it over with.”
Martha looked over at Jimmy, who was now standing and rubbing his bottom with both hands. “I’m sorry, Jimmy.”
Jimmy looked at me and frowned, his lower lip jutting out as he considered possible courses of action. I nodded encouragingly.
“All right,” he said, “but don’t do it again.”
“And you, sweetheart.” I turned my attention back to Martha. “What on earth happened to you?”
“Nothing, Miss Johnson. Anyway, it ain’t nothing you can fix.”
The ‘ain’t’ got ignored. “Are you sure?” I asked. “I’m pretty good at fixing things.”
Martha just shook her head. That would have to do for now, I thought. But I’d look into things later.
I didn’t want to continue the morning with anything that required much in the way of concentration, so I passed out the Shapes and Colors worksheets. My next twenty minutes were spent helping hot little hands keep their crayons mostly inside the lines. Martha only finished half the assignment and the colors she used were dark blue, brown, and black.
Calmed somewhat after the frenetic start, the class moved on to the arithmetic lesson. Arithmetic was still tedious and confusing for many, but things kept getting better. It thrilled me to see a face suddenly brighten as they realized for the first time ‘that’s what she meant!’
Martha chewed the point off her pencil, and had to use the sharpener on the back wall. I saw her peeking inside the cloakroom as she ground away at the pencil. When she finally came back to her seat, she sat there doodling and glancing over her shoulder occasionally.
The morning progressed from arithmetic to penmanship, through milk and graham crackers, and then morning recess. Finally story time came around and I finished the last chapter of our current, remarkably silly, book just before lunch.
I was considering ignoring the state-recommended list and introducing the children to The Little Prince next. There was certainly room for some taming here.
“And so Miranda, the good witch, waved her magic wand and turned the big, bad wolf into a little brown toad. Hoppy and Stinky and all their friends lived happily ever after. And they never had to worry about the big bad wolf ever again.”
“That’s not right, Teacher,” Jesse proclaimed. “Nobody could do that!”
“Could so,” Martha said in her soft little voice. “My Granny could. She says you can do anything you want, if you just wish hard enough.”
“It truly is make-believe, Martha,” I said. “There really aren’t any such things as witches.”
“Not witches, maybe,” Martha insisted, her voice more strident with each word. “But that other? About the toad? That could really happen!”
Her comment was punctuated by a tinny crash coming from the cloakroom. As heads turned towards the back of the room, Martha jumped to her feet, both hands at her mouth. A very large mouse ran through the cloakroom door. It sat on its haunches, nose and whiskers twitching and looked around.
It was too large, really, almost as big and fat as George the Hamster, but definitely a mouse. Short sleek gray fur, long naked tail, bright beady black eyes, twitching nose, sharp little teeth. Before more than the first ‘Look out’ could be shouted, or the first scream voiced, it scurried into the classroom.
Tables skidded across the floor. Chairs crashed over. Girls, and not a few boys, screamed. Someone shouted, “Stomp it!” over and over.
Martha paled and shrieked, “Don’t hurt him, don’t hurt him!”
I grabbed the wastebasket, upended the contents onto the floor, and trapped the skittering creature beneath it. “Okay, everybody, settle down,” I said. “The excitement’s over.”
Martha was on her knees with an ear pressed to the side of the wastebasket. “I can hear him,” she said. “I think he’s all right.”
I looked over at Our Animal Friends corner. George the Hamster was busy grooming herself. The snake cage was empty, however. Rosie the Boa had escaped his captivity over the summer and was still missing. His home, a dry aquarium with a wire top, was available for temporary use.
“I think this critter might bite,” I said.
Martha nodded vigorous agreement.
“You could throw something over it,” Patrick suggested.
“Good idea,” I replied. “You want to run and get your jacket?”
I guess not, I thought. Martha was to the cloakroom and back with hers before I could even ask. “Okay. Martha, when I say ‘now,’ you tip the wastebasket, and I’ll grab it with your jacket. Then we’ll put it in Rosie’s cage.”
Capture accomplished, I carried the wiggling mouse, shrouded in Martha’s jacket, back to the empty cage. I dropped it in and Patrick plopped the screen back on top. The mouse sat on its haunches and chittered angrily at us. I set the Campbell’s tomato soup can full of gravel on the screen to hold it down. I hoped it did a better job than it had with Rosie.
“Lunch time,” I said, quite unnecessarily, as the bell rang. “Grab your lunches and everybody go on outside to eat. Martha, stay and help me clean up, please.”
It took a while to clear everyone out, but eventually I could shut the door of the suddenly quiet classroom. Martha gathered the trash I’d dumped and put it back into the wastebasket while I straightened tables and righted tipped chairs.
“Get your lunch,” I said, “and sit up here at my desk with me. We’ll eat together and have a nice talk.”
Martha put her battered yellow lunch-box on my desk and opened it. Kool-Aid was leaking from the thermos and holes were chewed through the waxed paper of her sandwich. Tiny black pellets covered everything. Martha looked down at the floor, face tight, arms crossed and hands beginning to turn into fists once more.
“My goodness,” I said. “I don’t think you’re going to be eating that. Let’s get it cleaned up.”
Off we went to the sink. Sandwich into the garbage, Kool-Aid drained from the broken thermos. Everything rinsed and dried. Back to my desk.
“I hope you like PB and J,” I said, “cause that’s what we’re having for lunch.” I gave Martha half my sandwich. We ate quietly, washing the peanut butter and jelly down with water.
I ruffled Martha’s hair with my hand and turned her face towards mine. “It’s time for you to tell me what’s going on.”
“I didn’t mean to!” Martha’s face crumpled into tears. “He was taking my cookies, and I got mad!”
“Joe,” she said. “He’s so mean! But I didn’t mean to, really I didn’t. And now I don’t know what to do! Granny’s going to be so mad at me!”
Joe, a fat bully of a fourth-grader, was Martha’s brother. They lived with their maternal grandmother on a small farm up one of the creeks. Among other bits of nastiness, Joe raided the lunchboxes of younger children for their deserts. I suspected it wouldn’t be long before he graduated to more adult misdemeanors.
“Just what is it you didn’t mean to do?”
“I wished he was little, like a mouse,” she whispered, “and then he was!”
This would be a good time not to laugh, I thought. I tried to keep my face neutral.
“Granny says to be careful what I wish for. But I didn’t think this wish would come true. Really, I didn’t! Most of them don’t!”
I opened my mouth to say something and then realized I had no idea what to say. So I just smiled and nodded my head encouragingly.
“And I don’t know how to unwish it! That’s why I put him in my lunch box. I have to take him home and maybe Granny knows how to unwish it for me.”
Martha looked at her hand. “And he bit me,” she said. “Hard!”
I encourage imagination in children, but this was pushing the limits.
“So I have to take him home after school, Miss Johnson. Please!”
“Let me think about it, Martha,” I said. I wasn’t sure about sending a mouse home with anyone without some warning. Although, from the sound of things, Granny would be able to handle most anything that came her way.
I checked with the attendance office. Joe was absent that day. Probably playing hooky, I thought.
The afternoon went much more smoothly then the morning, although during nap time, the mouse kept squeaking and chittering and trying to climb the glass walls of the cage. After that, Martha spent her free time back in Our Animal Friends corner, whispering to it.
After the final bell, as the kids were trooping out the door, I took Martha aside. “I’m sorry, honey, but I can’t let you take that mouse home without your grandmother’s permission. If you could bring a note tomorrow?”
Martha’s expression became even more worried. “But he’ll get hungry! And he’ll be all alone here!”
“Don’t worry. I’ll give him some of George the Hamster’s food. I’m sure she won’t object. And I doubt if he’ll mind being alone for a while.”
Martha shrugged into her coat and started out the door. “Tell him not to worry, all right? Tell him Grandma’ll fix it.” She turned her face towards me. “Please?”
“All right sweetheart.” I supposed I could do that. “Don’t you worry either.”
If someone saw me crouched down in front of an old aquarium, telling a mouse not to worry about being alone at night, it would just confirm what they already figured. Five years of teaching first grade had turned my mind to mush. By myself, finally, I barely suppressed a giggling fit.
Before I went home, though, I made sure that the mouse had water and some hamster food. And as directed, I told him not to worry, that Grandma would take care of everything tomorrow. He made a valiant effort to take a piece of my finger off at every opportunity. I mentioned something about mousetraps and he actually stood on his hind legs and hissed at me.
The next morning Martha was her usual quiet self, although she kept smiling as she worked. When I had the opportunity, I asked her how Granny liked the idea of having a mouse come home in Martha’s lunchbox. She looked at me seriously, and told me again that Granny would fix everything. “She’s coming in at lunchtime,” Martha explained. “She’ll take Joe home then.”
I don’t know how I expected ‘Granny’ to look. A bit witch-like, I suppose. In fact, she was a slender attractive women in her early fifties dressed in faded jeans and a grey sweatshirt decorated with the cartoon characters Sylvester and Tweety Bird. Her short gray hair was caught up in a blue bandanna.
She carried a small wire cage with her into which she loaded the mouse. Joe? Naw. Although it made no attempt to sever any of her fingers. In fact, it seemed quite subdued.
“Uh… what are you going to do with that creature?” I asked.
“Oh, I think I’ll keep it around in the cage a couple of more days then turn it loose,” Granny replied.
I told her how much I admired her granddaughter’s… creative?… imagination.
She just laughed. “Yes,” she replied. “She does get carried away at times.”
And that was that.
Don’t ask me to explain any of this. I’m as certain as I can be that it was all just silliness in a little girl’s head. But Joe missed three days of school, and when he came back he was a very different boy. Better, I guess. He was certainly less of a bully. And he was very, very cautious around his little sister.
“I am a retired software engineer who was born and raised in Santa Clara Valley, but lived for years in Tennessee and Idaho. I am now fulfilling my dream of being a full-time RVer. Or was that a nightmare? The jury is still out.” E-mail: ursus[at]walkington.org.