Hell's Teacher

This past week I started what will be two months worth of classes, thus putting me on the road to obtaining my teacher’s certification. After only one session, I have to admit my difficulty in containing my excitement over the prospect of teaching high school English and/or History. Still though, I’m trying to balance my enthusiasm with various realities such as passing my subject content tests and then finding an open position at a school, while at the same time quelling my pre-conceived notions of being a mini version of Robin Williams in Dead Poet’s Society. There are times my (well-hidden) romantic nature can get the best of me, and I’m sure all the teachers out their reading this will no doubt pass along more than a few thoughts on my naivety. It was appropriate then, that on the first day of training a highly experienced middle-school principal spent the entire morning sharing the actualities - both good and bad - of the education field. Naturally this included a challenge to ask ourselves why we wanted to teach. I sat there quiet for a moment joining the other 300 plus people all answering the same question. It really didn’t take a great deal of effort to identify my motivations, and no, they had nothing to do with merely getting a job, a subject our speaker specifically made reference to in light of the current economic conditions. Apparently, she had already come across more than a few demonstrating this mindset. 

At some point I will likely share my reasons, but for now, I’m going to hold off in order to ensure they haven’t been colored too rosy by my earlier noted idealism. Besides, after a full day of drinking from the proverbial fire hose, it was clear how much I lack in understanding even the most fundamental of aspects, such as the nuances involved in simply getting an interview. To look at my resume, one might think, “Great experience, but how does it relate to the classroom, and more importantly, how do I know you’re not going to bolt the minute some company sweeps in offering $300K a year?” Obviously I have some retooling to do in marketing my credentials, which also includes putting some deep thought into a draft teaching portfolio that encompasses everything from my personal philosophy to sample lesson plans. This is not to mention the preparation required in order to pass the State of Texas’ exams designed to assess my knowledge of English and Social Studies. Yesterday I downloaded the Lit practice test and was encouraged to have correctly answered the first two questions of the ninety total (I only perused the first page lest you think that was my overall sum of accuracy). Not bad for having graduated almost eleven years ago, an achievement probably owed more to CLIFF notes than any intellectual prowess. Needless to say, I’ve been busier than normal (which is the reason I haven’t been getting around to all the blogs in my regular rotation as much as I normally do. Please forgive me.).

One of the interesting exercises we engaged in on our first day was breaking into groups to discuss our worst teachers. Like most of the people clustered nearby, the bunch I was with chuckled over the anecdotes from our classroom days. Most of the stories were of teachers who couldn’t control their classrooms, didn’t know the material or expected the students to teach themselves from the textbook, while offering little if any guidance. I’ve had a few like these myself, but when it came time to share, there was no doubt as to who left a scar in my educational experience, Mrs. Bowler.

Mrs. Bowler was my second-grade teacher, and easily the cruelest human being I’ve ever been around, which was only compounded by the fact the woman was hideously ugly. At the time I was her student, Mrs. Bowler was in her early 40’s and wore thick glasses with unusually large rims and tinted lenses. The most prominent feature on her pruned face was a lower jaw that jutted forward causing her lower teeth to stick out farther than the upper ones in an under-bite reminiscent of menacing piranha. Whether by design or out of a lack of good sense, Mrs. Bowler highlighted her threatening mandibles with a thick coat of lipstick in one of two colors, a deep purplish red, and a shade of orange worn for safety reasons by hunters and construction workers. As if this weren’t bad enough, her signature look was further reinforced by a head of frizzy black hair that looked like a cross between an afro and a Chia Pet wearing a sweater. Frankly, the woman could scare hungry buzzards off a wagon full of meat in the desert. I realize it’s unfair to judge someone based on such shallow criterion, but Mrs. Bowler’s countenance quickly set the tone for her mean spiritedness.

Her voice was a high-pitched whine infused with a sneering nastiness that told you she was keenly aware of the pain she was capable of inflicting.

There’s little I can remember from my time in second-grade, the parties for holidays, art projects made for my parents, or afternoons playing at recess. Fear, I suppose, tends to choke out childhood frivolity as a subconscious means of survival. What I do remember, however, is the boy Mrs. Bowler made sit in the boiler room adjoining the class where he did his lessons for most of the year, and the girl sitting up front who Mrs. Bowler referred to only as “Ms. Stupid,” rather than her real name. It’s also hard to forget the terror in watching Mrs. Bowler grab the shy girl who sat next to me by the hair and then shaking her head back and forth the way a dog would when thrashing a chew toy.

Thankfully I managed to somehow avoid any direct confrontations with Mrs. Bowler, that was, until the last day of school.“So, Ronnie,” she said looking up from next year’s student roster. Her voice was a high-pitched whine infused with a sneering nastiness that told you she was keenly aware of the pain she was capable of inflicting. “Looks like you’re not joining us next year?” This was true. My parents had decided to send me to a church school in town, and even though the new school thought it best I repeat the second grade, – a fact I directly attribute to Mrs. Bowler’s teaching abilities – there was exhilarating sense of escape in knowing I would never again occupy the same building as this evil woman. Still, there was another part of me that worried she possessed the power to keep me from leaving. It was like finishing a prison sentence for a crime never committed, but having to face the jail’s sadistic warden one last time before your release, bringing with it a skepticism that shackles any vision of freedom. And even after passing through the gate to the other side of those confining walls, you still feel too afraid to look back knowing by some unexplainable instinct, such cruelty can extend beyond any barricade or border.

My heart pounded, trapped inside my throat, but I still managed to choke out, “Yes, ma’am,” a few seconds before the dismissal bell rang. That was the last time I saw Mrs. Bowler just before bolting from her classroom. I didn’t feel safe again until the first day at my new school where my second, second-grade teacher, Ms. C., turned out to be everything a child hopes for as a student.

I knew how wrong it was of me to withhold the compassion such a mean, old bitch probably never received, but I didn’t care.

Fate, however, seems to have a quirky sense of justice that it administers by unconventional means and at the discretion of its own amusement. Fifteen years after my dash to freedom, during a visit home while on leave from the Army, I turned on the television one morning to catch the weather. There on the local news was a breaking story about an apartment fire that had just broken out, and the anchorman was announcing they would be going live to the scene where residents were standing by with their eyewitness accounts. On cue the camera flipped to the field correspondent who provided some updates to the situation before turning to conduct his first interview. The camera shot widened, and there she was, Mrs. Bowler, wrapped up in a thin blanket that covered her rumpled pajamas.She still wore the huge glasses, her hair was just as frizzy and the smudged orange lipstick indicated she had gone to bed without cleaning it off. It was as if she had never changed, which only confirmed my suspicion that Mrs. Bowler probably taught multiplication tables to Satan himself.

The complex that was blazing behind her was her home, and when my mother added that Mrs. Bowler had gotten divorced, I wanted to feel sorry for her. I wanted to believe that she really wasn’t a mean person at all, but a victim who only acted the way she did because someone had stuffed her in a closet, or called her stupid, or grabbed the back of her hair. It had been years and I had literally put half the world behind me since then, but even so, I couldn’t find one iota of sympathy for Mrs. Bowler’s lot in life. I knew how wrong it was of me to withhold the compassion such a mean, old bitch probably never received, but I didn’t care. Watching her on the TV, the only thing I could see was that shy girl, her head bowed as she tried to stifle the quiet sobs, and the blurred pencil marks on her math worksheet caused by the huge teardrops falling from her eyes. 

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