Fifth grade was a rough year for me. Although I had the twins across the street and Billy down in Artesia, I had no friends at school. It dawned on me that my classmates rejected me. I blamed the teacher. Mrs. Hillhouse was a strict, elderly woman who quoted, “Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.”
A classmate caught a bat in flight and was bitten, so afterward he endured the painful series of rabies shots. While Mrs. Hillhouse related the tale to us, she glared at his empty seat and finally spat, “Stupid boy.” Just a moment earlier, as I’d reveled in the story, I’d thought what a cool cat he was, catching a bat in midair, and maybe it was worth all those heinous needles stabbing into his belly. But no, I supposed he was stupid; the teacher said so. Teachers seemed almost godlike back then. Mom was in teacher training. I didn’t know it then, but one day, I’d try it as well, because I’ve always thought teachers were important, and I wanted to be important, too.
In the meantime, Mrs. Hillhouse told us other stupid things to avoid, such as running in the classroom. So when I ran, slipped, and knocked my jaw on a desk, I received no sympathy. “See?” Mrs. Hillhouse admonished. So there it was: “See?” which sounded to me like “another stupid boy.” She cast her wizened gaze over her adoring audience; her boney old arms crisscrossed her dour bosom. My tears and her prescience boosted her to iconic stature. She disliked me for my failure to follow clear directions but also for speaking out of turn, another vice of mine that I should probably let you in on so that you can understand my ostracism. My fifth-grade peers still wanted their teacher’s favor, so nobody comforted me, which made them all brownnosers in my eyes—not that I couldn’t alienate them all on my own; it appeared that I was gifted in that way.
Later, when Mrs. Hillhouse asked who played the piano, I raised my hand. I’d show them. I’d play “Greensleeves.” I’d had a couple years of reluctant lessons, so I scooted the bench close. There was the music book, the black-and-white keys, and…nothing. Mrs. Hillhouse’s yellow-calico crotch hovered by my shoulder. I remained blank. Of course, it was performance anxiety; almost anything that could manifest around anxiety would be my lifelong nemesis. I looked up. She smirked down and said, “Some people said they could play when in fact they could not. Oh, what a tangled web we weave…”
Apparently, I was “some people.”
Some people were snickered at by the heavyset teacher’s pet, one of Mrs. Hillhouse’s trustees. I muttered, “Pigeth,” at her. I thought it was a good slam and clever wordplay; you know, something that Mark Twain or someone who got a neat joke book instead of a Ben Franklin biography might say. Everyone would laugh at my humor and take my side.
Mrs. Hillhouse disagreed and made me stand by the door and await a paddling by the principal. In those days, it was OK for a grown-ass man to take a wooden Ping-Pong paddle and spank little boys who didn’t filter what they said well enough. I prefer the words “beat” or “assault” to “spank” or “paddle.” Euphemisms for hitting children don’t sit well with me. If I sound judgmental, it’s because I am. I have zero tolerance for violence toward kids. Calling it “spanking” or “the rod” or something more palatable than physical aggression only excuses further attacks against children. I know what it’s like to be on the receiving end, and I know the psychological damage it can cause. In the short term, it can harm the relationship between the child and parent (or whoever is spanking the child) and can lead to depression, aggression, low self-esteem, and antisocial behavior in the child. In the long term, it can lead to mental illness and anxiety. I imagine someone doing that to my son, and my anger rises. He’s eighteen years old and has never been hit by anyone, ever. He’s not maladjusted because of the lack of violence in his life. On the contrary, he’s better adjusted and not always on high alert for attack. He’s lucky, but his mom and I have made sure that he’s lucky. For me, under Mrs. Hillhouse’s regime and standing by the classroom door, I was terrified of authority and violence. Is that how we raised good citizens back then? I know that’s how we raised angry citizens. What about mutual respect between peers and authority figures? What about communicating through our issues? Was I too frivolous a boy for an adult educator to sit down and talk to about verbally attacking others? I understand that I’m a product of the post-Watergate, post-antiwar shift to less awe of authority. And I try not to be one of those hovering parents; I’m just saying that striking another human being is a bad idea. I’ve learned that from books and the hard way. Of course, I was wrong to name call; if my son had done that, there would have been consequences, but they wouldn’t have included violence toward him.
Now, here’s where you’re probably expecting me to describe in aggrieved detail how the principal, the molder of children’s minds and civic behavior, attacked me with his Ping-Pong paddle. But that’s not what happened. I was terrified then, and I am indignant today, even though what really happened was that Mrs. Hillhouse took pity on my tear-stained face and gave me a last-minute reprieve. I could avoid the paddle and sit down if I stayed quiet, which I eagerly agreed to do, but only for a while, because with no swats to my behind, I didn’t learn the lessons about not running inside the classroom, not volunteering for anything, and not name-calling people who mock me. Still, I did not win over my peers with my less-than-witty response to sniggers: they didn’t tolerate my sharp tongue, either—to their credit, I suppose, but only in retrospect.
Now I wonder whether I had a touch of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), a diagnosis that was not on anybody’s radar in those days. Back then, teachers were given full rein to denigrate and punish youthful exuberance and those of us with poor mental filters and scant guidance. I learned to fear and distrust authority, and I better understood how those entrusted with power could crush those of us who had an unsolicited opinion and a will to share it. So I was alone that year, a boy who needed a lesson about lashing back and name-calling. I concluded that I was, at core, an unsavory and misunderstood boy; and then I carried that shame and anger into my future, concealed beneath various chameleon manifestations.