The incident has haunted me all these years. I’m still not sure who, if anybody else, knows about it other than the principals involved. At the time this incident occurred I was in 6th grade and was at a loss for what to do. I, of course, had never experienced anything like this before, nor did I know of anyone who had ever been in the same situation. So I suffered through this on my own with only my 6th grade knowledge and intellect to rely on.
Looking back on this long ago incident, I’m having trouble recalling the name of my 6th grade teacher. I think perhaps I was so traumatized by this that I blocked out as much as I could as a way of dealing with it. So I’m asking for help from any St. Peter Claver class of 62 alumni out there who remember the name of that layperson who taught our 6th grade class. She wasn’t a nun like the rest of the faculty at that time. It would be nice to put a name on the other participant beside myself in this seminal event of my life.
This crisis in my young life began innocently enough with a homework assignment. I always prided myself on doing all the homework that the teacher assigned. My attitude was “bring it on. There is nothing I can’t handle. Pile it on and watch me as I make a mockery of your piddling assignments.” Despite that arrogance, I was a good student and a good boy. I would never deliberately cause any one any trouble. Showing any kind of disrespect to an adult, especially a teacher, was a sure way to head down the path to perdition, to damnation and hell. So I was totally unprepared for the reaction I got when I handed in that day’s homework.
As homework assignments go , it wasn’t anything unusual. Nothing out of the ordinary. A simple bit of the typical spelling homework that was a frequent visitor to the homework pile. I barely noticed it sitting on the dining room table where I always sat to do my homework under the watchful eye of my mother and the synchronized glare of my 2 older sisters, who wold have loved to catch me in a mistake so they could rain down abuse on my tender psyche. Big sisters are like that. Especially when they are dealing with whom they considered to be a Momma’s boy and the holder of the title “favorite.” But I made no mistakes that night, and having finished the spelling assignment, which I always put at the bottom of the pile because it was usually easy and even then I was already aware of the need to finish strong so as to build confidence going into the next school day.
I know you are wondering what could be so traumatic about all this that I have carried it around with me all theses years, haunting me with the uncertainty that comes from not knowing where it all went sideways. Let us review the assignment so everyone understands why I am still bedeviled by this simple little exercise in spelling and vocabulary. As was the habit of that particular teacher (she always gave the same type of assignment whether the subject was math or English), she provided us with ten words that we were to learn--that is, memorize-- how to spell and then use the word in a sentence that would demonstrate that we now understood the meaning of the word. Simple enough so that even the dullards, if there were any, would have a reasonable chance at success if they could understand what to do.
We got this same type of spelling homework all the time. I always found it to be ridiculously easy, even boring at times, but I still put forth the effort necessary to get it right and learn those new vocabulary words. I’ve always been a good speller and my vocabulary is certainly (not bragging, just stating what is evident in my writing) above
average. That may well be because of my sixth grade teacher (what was her name again?) and her insistence that we learn 10 new words each week (I shot for 10 per day). But much of my vocabulary and the willingness to use it, comes from inside me. I just love the language and being able to use it. I’e been known to carry dictionary in my pocket for those times when I am bored need a new word to explain that boredom. So, to get back on track here--I did the assignment, handed it in the next morning, and waited until the following day to get it back after it had been reviewed and graded.
The procedure was always the same: she (the teacher naturally) would walk up and down the aisles between our desks and hand each student his or her paper back with an appropriate comment about the quality of the work. Routine. Of course, as she approached my desk, I sat up straighter than usual, expecting a breathless string of praise for the outstanding work I had done. But wait. There must be some mistake. She didn’t stop at my desk to lavish praise on me or give me a pat on the back with an accompanying “well done” issuing from her astounded mouth. She passed me by without so much as a hint that she knew I was alive and sitting in her classroom.
Nor did she return my paper to me. I was in a state of shock that such an egregious
lapse in the homework routine would land on me, tainting me with a psychedelic splash of color on my back that spelled “wise ass.”
As the day continued without any hint that anything unusual had happened, I got deeper and deeper into the realization that I was about to get hammered with an unprecedented scolding, maybe even a visit from the FBI (Foolish Boy Interrogators) after the school day ended. I could just hear her saying as the kids walked out of the classroom after the day’s learning had been completed, “Robert, you stay.” My mind raced through as many of the reasons I did what I did and came up short of a reasonable explanation. She probably assumed I got help from an unknown accomplice, since in her experience, no 6th grader could pull off such a stunt alone.
I was certain that my transgression would soon be the scandal that brought shame to stay for a long visit in my family’s house, and caused 2nd glances of disdain at the back of our pastor for his allowing such a rapacious seeker of glory to attend his school.
But nothing happened. No one said a word. No one made a move to clear up the confusion I felt. Mrs. _______ ( I still haven’t remembered her name) never breathed even a sigh of exasperation in my direction for the remainder of the school year to indicate that she knew anything unusual had happened in her classroom. My paper, being the only evidence that something untoward had occurred, has been lost in the curls of time. I still don’t know what she believed about me and the infamous spelling homework that I so diligently worked on until I got it just right. Not knowing if she was astounded by my effort, or perhaps unable to believe that I was that intelligent and clever on my own, or if she kept my spelling homework to show as evidence of her superior talent as a teacher, is still driving me crazy after all this time. Why have I been tortured like this for simply being intelligent enough, bold enough, unconventional enough, and creative enough as a 6th grader to take those 10 spelling words she gave us to learn, memorize, and use in a sentence to show we understand the word’s meaning, and use them all in one sentence that actually made sense. That’ s correct. Ten words, one sentence. I wish I had the list of words to show how it worked out. You’ll have to take my word (or words) for it. And, yes, I am still bummed out over this. I feel I was cheated out of a moment’s glory that might ave changed the course of my life. Ever since that day when I went unrecognized for doing something unique and surprising, I have often been reluctant to take that step into the unusual. How many opportunities have gone untried because I feared the indifference or the lack of recognition that might occur? How much more tentative am I when faced with a creative decision? How different would I be as an artist and a writer if only Mrs. Whatshername had acknowledged my creation? We’ll never know and I will remain perplexed and saddened and wondering who I really am. All because of ten words.