Just A Perry 'Gurl'

 

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The Ol' Battle Ax

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Today so much is said about our public schools and the teachers who staff them. Unfortunately, very little I have read in the past few months dwells on the positive aspects of a public school education. Some say the problem lies in a bureaucratic administration. Others place blame squarely on the shoulders of the teachers in the classroom.

I like many do not know what is wrong with things today but I do know what I believe was right when I was educated in that same system umph-something years ago. There are today many teachers who are as dedicated to the nourishment of young minds as there were in my years in public school in a small Georgia town. Could it be the "handcuffs" with which teachers must teach that is the problem? I have been told by a kindergarten teacher that even when a 5 year old is frightened into tears, a teacher dare not even administer a little pat or hug to help soothe the emotional wound.

So different is this from those years in my small school . The community connected through the school. Your first grade teacher might well have taught your father or the principal might be a deacon in your church. This connection created a bound of trust. Parents trusted teachers to be fair, competent and caring. Teachers could count on parents to support their efforts in education and discipline. There were of course exceptions but they seemed very few.

It was in the same building that my mother and father had attended school that I was taught by some of the very same teachers that had taught them. It was there that I discovered in the sixth grade that school could be a great place; a place I enjoyed being. There were basketball games, football games, and band practice. There were prom parties and notes to be passed in class; gossip about steadies and breakups. School was.....well, just FUN! And that is good to a certain point . It certainly made it easier for a kid to get up in the morning and make that sleepy eyed journey to the breakfast table, tease the hair (if you were a woman of the sixties) and head out the door before daybreak. However, since I tend to be of a myopic nature, so it was with school. I singularly focused on the social aspect of education.

Upon reaching the seventh grade I was prime and tuned to the social milieu of an emerging teen. The books and lessons were a tedious, boring requisite of my school experience until .........Mrs. Laura O’Neal! It was she who would widen my focus in a very effective but unconventional manner which probably today would surely be considered child abuse by some.

I was not a trouble maker, just not a serious student. Mrs. O’Neal was a strict disciplinarian with a passion for teaching . She expected children to listen and learn. I was more interested in passing notes, gossiping and recess. Yes, in the seventh grade we still had good old-fashioned recess. Unorganized kickball, jump rope and all the rest of the games of childhood. Do seventh graders still play or is it PE today?

One day something happened in class that I found disagreeable. Maybe it was an extra long homework assignment (which cut into fun time) that prompted my demoniac behavior. . I really don’t remember. What I do remember was the consequences of my grievous sin. What did I do so despicable that it is still imbedded in my memory after 36 years?

After school, I went up the street to visit Mary , a classmate. While sitting out under the big oak in the side yard of Mary’s Georgia Avenue house and reviewing the days events, I confided to her that I thought Mrs. O’Neal to be "an real ol’ battle-ax!" Well I should have known better. Mary was what is commonly known as a teacher’s pet. Today’s more worldly students no doubt use a term which alludes to a color and a nasal feature. It was the next day that I found out how Mary ingratiated herself to Mrs. O’Neal. Mary was a snitch!

This betrayal was a catalyst for an event that turned out to be one of those catastrophic events of which psychologists write; events that precipitate behavioral changes. The day began quite routinely. Mrs. O’Neal started the class on a reading assignment at our desks. However after a few moments she approached my desk and asked me to join her in the hall. Boy, was I dumbfounded. I had not even had a chance to pass a note off to Molly in the next seat over. I mistakenly thought she might be sending me on an errand. I followed the "ol’ battle-ax" out of the classroom and then to the empty teachers’ lounge in the front hall of the venerable old red brick building on Main Street. I was intrigued since I had never before seen the inside of "the lounge". A Coca-Cola machine and a couch caught my eye. Being a teacher had its privilege I decided; still not having a clue as to what this was all about. It was then that Mrs. O’Neal looked me in the eye with a stern dispassionate glare and said, "I was told you called me an old battle-ax. Is that true?" I was perhaps precocious, but also naive and blatantly honest. Being "brought up right" in the First Baptist Church, I responded affirmatively. After all, old battle-ax didn’t seem so bad. I thought of another word I could have used ... witch. At that moment I thought that it would probably have applied as well. Evidently, my confession did not convey the appropriate amount of concern or remorse. It was at that moment two bony hands clasped my shoulders in a grip of definite intimation.

Jeepers! This was not good! Never before in my seven years in school had I even been made to stay after school, stand in the hall or write sentences on the board. (I did have to write 50 times, I will not talk in class, but so did the other 28 kids in the room.) The only time I had been to the principals office was to deliver lunch money. After the grip, came a shaking motion and a verbal lashing, some of which went along the often heard lines about respecting your elders, the sin of name calling, and judgment to come in the hereafter. But the shrill voice of that dear gray-haired teacher also delivered another message that took root and planted itself that day in my bobbing young head. "Young lady, you are wasting my time and yours. You do not apply yourself. You are a bright student and could make good grades but right now you are skimming-by. It is time you mended your ways. You have potential . I want to see you start to take school seriously. If things don’t change I will have to talk to, ....... your Mother!"

Now, the threat of talking to my Mother was a formidable one. My Mother was not one to put up with any form of child abuse; but hers was not the definition as we know it today. It was child abuse as defined then: a child’s abuse of the respect for authority, be it parental or institutional. I knew the shaking I was receiving at the hands this frustrated teacher was insignificant when compared to the wrath my Mother visited upon a disrespectful and disobedient child. So I was pleased when Mrs. O’Neal indicated that this little indiscretion of mine could be kept between the two of us.

It was a long night that night at home anticipating the ring of the old rotary dial phone. But Mrs. O’Neal kept her end of the bargain, and you can bet I kept mine. From that day forward my deportment was beyond reproach, my homework done to perfection and A’s on my report card in multiples. I was finding I did indeed have "potential".

Though this had been said to me many times before, it had to literally be shook into me. Even then, I understood that it took a lot of real caring for a teacher to take the extra time and effort to deal with a smart-mouth pre-teen. Maybe I would have wandered to the right path later, but I’m glad that I was directed to it sooner. What worked with me, would undoubtedly not work with every kid. But I feel fortunate to have been in public school at such a time when a teacher’s judgment was trusted and discretion granted so that a student could be taken in hand and some sense shaken into a hard head but bright mind.

Terrelle Moody Walker
1998


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