Behind your back, teachers make notes on you and stick them in a file so other teachers can see what kind of person they think you are. So if the teacher thinks you are a screw-up, she writes down, this kid is a screw-up. And then your next teacher reads that you are a screw-up.
This is known as letting people make up their own minds.
Mrs. Seaward, my junior year English teacher, must have read what Mr. Richards wrote about me. That’s the only way I can figure out why she jumped down my throat at practically nothing. She was primed to do it at the first sign of anti-authority tendencies. For a semester at least, she assigned us “themes” at least 3 times a week. She might as well have just taken her “themes” from the dictionary, since they were one word affairs like “patriotism,” or “honor,” or “education.” But all you had to do was write a paragraph on the “theme,” so it wasn’t so bad. In fact, I enjoyed writing them.
But one night she gave us the theme of “time.” I had already got it into my head that I was a better than average writer maybe because in fact I was a better than average writer. But with this theme, I couldn’t find any way to display my talents. I was super frustrated because all I could do was come up with one cliché after another. I remember feeling that I was angry and that maybe I was stepping across a line, even though I was also trying to solve a problem, when I typed out an entire page of “tick-tocks” and interspersed them with parenthetical remarks like tick-tock (time flies) tick-tock or tick-tock (tempus fugit—since I was taking Latin) tick-tock or tock-tick (time heals all wounds).
So this teacher calls me back into her little cubby hole of an office space and tells me that if I ever again submit a paper like this she will have me kicked out of her class. And then she says, “You are just a rebel without a cause.” I was a bit flattered because I have always felt it was better to be something than nothing. And being a rebel without a cause seemed more romantic than simply being insolent. But I didn’t know what she was talking about because I was unaware of the movie with that title. When I did see the movie I couldn’t believe it; she was comparing me to what we called “hoods” or “juvenile delinquents.”
No one was less a hood than I. Crossing the police scared the living piss out of me. And I didn’t have a car to try to crash into somebody else with. I thought James Dean was a fucking spoiled brat. All my fellow students thought I was the most proper guy alive; that’s why the guys on the basketball team didn’t invite me to get drunk and drive around knocking off rear view mirrors with a hammer. They knew I wouldn’t do it. Nobody knew me really. I wasn’t a damn James Dean and I wasn’t Mr. Proper either or else I wouldn’t have a father who seemed to want to kill me or teachers accusing me of being a rebel without a cause.
My mother did not spank us boys much. She was pretty slow for one thing and not at all given to physical exertion of any kind. I don’t think she thought it was ladylike. But in the summers especially, she always kept a switch, which she would occasionally ineffectually apply, on top of the refrigerator.
Sometimes, if we were not acting in ways to her liking, she would take down the switch and say, “My, but this switch is old and all dried out. This won’t do. I want you boys to go out right now and get me a proper switch.” Something about going out to get the instrument of your own destruction really upset me. So we would go out and get and switch, and she would look at it and say, “This is not a proper switch. It’s not long enough and it’s all dried out.” Or: “It’s spring. Aren’t there some switches out there with buds on them? They really sting don’t they?” So we would have to go out and get a switch with nice little green buds on it.
The worst for me though was when I did something that bothered her and she would say, “Just you wait till your father gets home.” A good portion, but not always—sometimes she would just forget she had said it—this meant I would get a whipping. If she said this late in the day, it wasn’t so bad, because my father would be getting home soon and the whole thing would be over one way or another. But sometimes, she would say it early in the day, and just thinking about him coming home to beat me would ruin my whole day.
One day, when this happened, something got into me and I climbed up a tree. I had not thoroughly thought out my plan, but it seemed to be that if he wanted to whip me he was going to have to get me. I was a good tree climber and got myself pretty far up a nearby tree. But I had not timed my climbing well and so had to sit there two hours before he came home.
I heard the car and he entered through the front. But nothing happened. Instead I heard the sounds of the table being set. And then quiet. They must have been eating. I felt really hungry and knew I was licked. Climbing up a tree is not a good escape plan. I climbed down and went into the kitchen. My father just laughed at me; and my mother she I had punished myself sufficiently.
I had to eat my dinner cold. But I didn’t get a beating. I thought that was a pretty good trade off.
Our first grade teacher would ask us to read aloud from Dick and Jane. Dick and Jane were awful boring white kids. Their father wore a suit. What bullshit. They also had a dog named Spot. I didn’t know where the hell these kids lived, but they sure didn’t live where I did. My parents gave me a dog; but it became a chicken killer and somebody killed it with a shot gun. “See Spot run. Shoot Spot in the ass.”
The teacher would read, “See Spot Run!” and we would say it back. Then she would ask one of us to say it back; if you didn’t say it back correctly, she would whack you on the hand with her yardstick.
We had a dunce chair. The kid who couldn’t get anything right would be stuck up there on the dunce chair.
“See Dick on the dunce chair. Dick is an idiot boy.”
But we didn’t have a dunce cap. When the dunce chair was occupied, the teacher would put kids in the two closets in the back. They had to stand there and face the wall; the teacher kept the doors open so she could see what they were up to. When she ran out of closet she would use the wall. Kids would just line up and face the wall.
Late one afternoon, I looked around and saw I was the only person still in my seat except for one girl across the room. The room was stone cold silent; I couldn’t even hear the kids breathing. I felt a bit dizzy sitting there alone and exposed. My I had a brain and paid attention. I remember getting whacked only once. “Hold out your hand.” She was a pretty good whacker. It stung.