written by: Vern Fein
Why would I not include her last name in the title? She can’t be on this Earth anymore, as I am tipping toward 80 and Mrs. S_____ had to be in her thirties when I was the star and the goat in our 8th grade history class. I really have no idea how old she was because kids at that age think everyone who has a job is an old person.
Mrs. S_____ was a student’s terror. Through all of seventh grade, when the subject of teachers came up, which it did back then when there wasn’t social media to inhibit conversation, when kids talked to each other and the lunchroom was the Internet, every student agreed on one prayer: Please don’t let me get Mrs. S_____ next year!
But I did and, even though I expressed the obligatory woe is me to everyone who asked, secretly I liked the challenge and challenge it was. She was formidable. She expected you to actually read the material and do your homework. No student in his right mind would ever consider cutting corners. Because Mrs. S_____ did what every student dreaded: She called on you! And she did not just call on you. She expected you to have the right answer or, more importantly, show that you had engaged the material. If you had not, she would know and her tongue became acid that would sizzle your ego smaller than an eighth grader could ever imagine. No kid wanted be unable to answer and pleading ignorance was like saying you didn’t know how to tie your shoes.
I can’t remember much about what we studied,—probably just the standard American history text— but I do remember that I liked her class though I am sure I complained volubly about how bad it was, how mean she was, so I could stay in good standing with my peers. Later, I was to become a history major in college and teach social studies much of my teaching life. How much did Mrs. S_____ influence that? Who knows? But I know she certainly kindled my life long fascination with history.
Despite all the learning that I did and the knowledge that she considered me one of her better students as manifested by her positive remarks on my papers and tests, two incidents stand out that had nothing to do with history and why, after over sixty years, I decided to write about Mrs. S_____.
The first was when I was thrown out of class. Was it because I failed to answer correctly or, on one particular day, wasn’t prepared? No, that never happened. This formidable teacher didn’t throw you out of class if you did not respond the way she expected. That would have been a blessing. No, instead, her tongue became a knife, eviscerating whatever soul an eighth grader possessed. “Do you want to flunk out of high school?” “Do your parents want you to work on a garbage truck (boys) or in a beauty parlor?” (girls) were a couple of the challenges she threw at culprits because, back then, teachers could get away with saying just about anything and it was virtually sacrosanct. Students had no rights and were lucky to be allowed to breathe in certain situations. And, for parents, if the teacher said it, it was the law even though most of the kids in our blue-collar area would never go to college and a lot would wind up on trucks or fixing people’s hair.
No, one day she asked for suggestions for class colors and, somewhat of a class clown in every other class I had, that jack-in-the-box jumped out of me and I ventured “Black and Blue”, which caused a big laugh from the class and a quick and stern: “Mr. F_____, you may go to the office.”
But I know she liked me, this big-bosomed woman, who was like a mother hen because she really did care about her students and their future and loved history with a passion. And, truth be told, when she had a student, frankly like me, in whom she saw some real potential, saw that they actually might go to college, actually did love history, she was even harder on you, but, also made you her pet in a lot of small ways. One demonstration of that was the most embarrassing event in all my time with Mrs. S_____ , perhaps in all the time I have spent on the Earth.
How many teachers do we have over the years? And how many from back then do we even recall? Not many. Think back yourself. How many?
This is mainly why I remembered Mrs. S_____ after all these years. Not because of the academic gauntlet she put me through and not because she threw me out of class for my quip. No, I most recall Mrs. S_____ because she danced with me.
In that world so long ago, the powers that be used gym class for a variety of things, not just sports. There was some mild sex education, but somehow we got instructed in that without that three-letter word being used much. And I remember too—it seems so strange now—doing a class garden in the Spring. But, mainly, I remember when we were introduced to ballroom dancing, which perhaps is more of a death sentence than public speaking.
And who should be the one doing the instructing? None other than Mrs. S_____. I will never know why she was the one to introduce us to the one activity none of us wanted to learn. I cannot recall if we had P.E. teachers back then or if various teachers were just assigned occasionally to do that duty as part of their job. But, for whatever reason, Mrs. S_____ was picked, or, I suspect, decided to teach us the Foxtrot as an intro to ballroom dancing, something she assured our frightened faces, we would be very glad to have learned when we were a bit older, having no idea that Chubby Checker and rock and roll would wipe out that era in a short while.
We gathered in the gym, sitting in chairs around the room, the girls in half the chairs on one side and the boys on the other. Mrs. S_____ was in the middle. She was not a dancer type at all. She was not lithe and agile, but a large woman who one would never think would be the one assigned to teach ballroom dancing.
None of that mattered as we tried to sink through the back of our chairs while Mrs. S_____ first verbally explained the Foxtrot technique and then, without a partner, encircled her arms around an imaginary dancer and demonstrated the steps several times in front of our terrified eyes.
We all knew what was coming. Our friends who has graduated last year had told us: “She is going to pick one of you to show how to do the steps—and it won’t be a girl!”
Some poor boy would be the victim of her lesson.
You guessed it. I did not have a chance. I was kind of the class clown, was one of her better students, and was quite small and easy to drag around the dance floor and be held imprisoned in her large bosom while she stopped occasionally to explain each step. While I hung with her large arm around my neck, she began to move, dragging me more than dancing as we proceeded, sometimes, I do remember, leaving the ground as she twirled me around.
I do not know how long the lesson lasted. Eternity can last for a very short time. I am sure no another student made a peep. There were no smirks or titters as she cavorted with me. Not a single other student wanted to be noticed in case she decided to switch from me to someone else. She did not.
I cannot remember the depth of my humiliation. All I know is that I must have swallowed my soul, but, in reflecting back on this unforgettable scene, I can distinctly recall one curious thing. It was not the dance or being squeezed or having a red face or looking into the saucer-sized eyes of my horrified classmates that is stark for me. It was how Mrs. S_____ smelled. She smelled like pepper.
And that was my main struggle back then in that old gym. As Mrs. S_____ pressed me to her bosom, she smelled of pepper, though it is hard to believe that any perfume would smell like that. Maybe it was her sweat revealing that she used a lot of that spice. But those are just guesses now and who would even know or care? All I do know is that my main struggle in that archetypal humiliation was to keep myself from sneezing. I did not sneeze, but just allowed myself to be a dutiful rag doll or puppet or whatever you want to call me as she jerked and twirled my slight frame around the floor.
I do not remember the aftermath. I surely must have gotten some sympathy from my relieved class mates who were so glad I had been the guinea pig and not them. I know there were other ballroom classes with Mrs. S_____ and certainly other students were chosen to demonstrate and I know, because I would have remembered for sure, I was not chosen again.
And I can remember why I recalled it so graphically over sixty years later, for, in old age, the past exists far more past in our minds than future as we tend to look backwards, whether we like it or not and avoid, as much as possible, thinking about the scary future.
I was at the dinner table with my four-year old grandson and he picked up the pepper shaker, sniffed it, and sneezed into his food. Like a specter off his plate, the memory of Mrs. S______ rose up and the rest is history.