The Witch

I don’t use the word lightly. But I am not sure how else to describe her. You’re judging, I can tell, and normally I’m with you on that. But hear me out, some people have rotten hearts.

A good teacher can do a world of good in a child’s life. A bad teacher can do immeasurable damage. I have been blessed with many excellent teachers but the witch, we won’t use her actual name, was not one of them. She was not about children, she was about herself, and her perfectly ordered life.

I was a mid year transfer from another school. The principal brought me into the class and introduced me. She did not say hello. She did not ask the class to welcome me. She did not ask me where I came from. Rather, her first words to me were “Great, and we just finished updating the seating chart.”

Thus began a test of wills and I spent the rest of the school year in battle mode. She may have been a witch, but in 5th grade I was a world class motherfucker. Seriously, I was a handful.  Her problem was I was smart.  This was the smart class and I was easily the smartest one in it,  but I wouldn’t work for her. She catered to her pets, the perfect blonde Hitler youth suck asses. She wasn’t talking to me, and I wasn’t listening, all I did was read. Finally,  in exasperation she put me by the class library. “Just sit there and read then”.  I was happy. There was a good selection of Beverly Cleary books and The Mad Scientists Club.

Eventually, my grades sank enough that she got me kicked out of her class and into the not smart but not stupid class. “Good riddance” she said as I was told to switch rooms one day. As much as I hated the idea of going back to her class I was not going to let her win. I immediately started to destroy every task put in front of me and you guessed it: back to her class. Collective groan encouraged by her…though not everyone. There were a couple of boys and one girl that were happy that I was twisting her ass in a knot. I did have a few friends you see. At that age, if a teacher hates you, that’s major school yard cred.

The standoff continued through the last of the school year until it was time for her crowning glory moment of the year. The final assembly was where all the classes put on a performance for the parents and the entire student body, after which there would be a rousing rendition of the school song, set to the music of the Notre Dame fight song. Then everyone would return to their classrooms to gather their gear and head out for the last time and into summer break.

You won’t be surprised when I tell you that she prided herself on always having the best class play. And you have already surmised that it wasn’t about the kids but about her.  But this year was going to be different. Believe it or not, this grown ass adult set out for revenge.  Dig two graves.

The whole thing was so transparent that she could not have been thinking straight. Even my one little girl ally said to me “you’re not going to do it are you? In front of the whole school? She’s so mean.” I thought about letting her in on my plan. After all, she was the only girl that would speak to me, but I couldn’t afford any leaks.

Rehearsals all went off without a hitch. The other students played their parts as the seasons passed. Trees would bud, birds would sing, brooks would babble and then leaves would fall and cold would swoop in. Until the climax, and I would dutifully run in a circle around the stage while one of the Hitler youth informed the audience that “The sap was still running”. And then the whole class would cheer and tell me I was going to be the highlight of the assembly. It was like one of those things where a sociopath takes over and gets everyone else to act like sociopaths, and they start believing that the laws of physics don’t apply to them.  The applicable law of physics here was that kids from a neighborhood like Hollis are not going to fall for some bullshit cooked up by a bunch of spoiled assholes from a rich neighborhood.

On the day of the big assembly kids were telling me to break a leg, do a good job etc. Even the witch cow was in high spirits. It wouldn’t last. The skit got underway and things went perfectly, just as we rehearsed it. Until it was my turn. I didn’t budge. “Get out there!” someone hissed. I crossed my arms “no”. The narrator, with nothing else to do on stage delivered the punchline before the joke. The witch cow started to grab me by the arm and then stopped. I think that was the moment her rationality came back in a blinding flash of clarity. She saw that I was playing a bigger game. I wanted a confrontation in front of the entire school and all the parents. She didn’t rise to the bait. I’d done enough though. The joke was blown and that was the entire point of the skit…for an adult to humiliate an 11 year old in front of hundreds of people. She shoved one of the Hitler youth on stage to run in a circle and the the narrator delivered the punchline again. There was laughter but they were laughing at the obvious foul up.

She never spoke another word to me. We just went our separate ways. The only smart thing she did all year was that moment when she backed off. It was a good thing and probably for both of us. What she did not know was I was already destined for Military school the next year. Which meant I was untouchable. They could suspend me. They could expel me. It wouldn’t matter. There was nothing the New York City School system could do to me and I was primed to take full advantage.

David

David was an unlikely role model.  Alcoholic,  unable to hold a job for long,  drifting from sibling to sibling dependent on their love of family to put him up in their homes.  They were a good sort, his brothers and sisters, my aunts and uncles.  And so they put up with David.  And his nieces and nephews got used to him as a sort of flawed authority figure.

But here is the thing about David.  He was not lazy.  He worked hard wherever he was.  He was an easy guest that fixed things, made food, and kept a low profile.  He watched over us kids, and while we thought he was a bit grouchy,  we respected him.

David was also a reader,  and that was probably his biggest gift to me.  He read voraciosuly,  and he and my Uncles Andy and Bobby would discuss the books in front of the kids.  TV was not really a thing for us.  Maybe some football, or a movie like the Wizard of Oz.  But generally, we consumed books.

David was also a walker,  somewhat common in a city like New York,  but even more common in our family.  Most of my Aunts and Uncles did not own cars.  They didn’t even have drivers licenses.  You took public transit or you walked.   Taxis?  That was for rich people.

I don’t know what made David like he was.  He fought in Korea, so it could have been something, a scar, or a nightmare he carried from that experience.  I will never know.

And so I became a walker.  And I became a reader.  And I learned that books were something to be discussed and debated.  And I learned to be a polite guest and to always lend a hand.

Not a bad legacy from an alcoholic, unemployable, drifter.

© Glenn R Keller 2020, All Rights Reserved

Dad

I liked the darkness.  The smell of sawdust from the game table.  Blue or magenta glowing lights back-lit a wall of liquor bottles.  Rough women and rougher men. No one wanted to talk to a kid. They had serious drinking to do and the world’s problems to solve. I had to entertain myself.  There was always a TV with a ballgame on if all else failed.

On days with my father,  we went to the Worlds Fair.  We went to the beach.  We went to his job driving a city bus.  But the days always ended the same way;  sitting in a bar where he drank himself stupid before driving me home in that Chevy Bel Air station wagon.

On bonus days,  where I was just being babysat,  I could stay at the home of some woman he was shacking up with.  Once,  staying at one of these places, I was bored and made some friends with the local kids.  Older, they encouraged me to throw a rock at some other boy.  I opened up his forehead.  Everyone split and I remember the kids mother complaining to my father.  The was the last time I saw my father and when I was a little boy I assumed it was because I had been bad and thrown a rock at a boy.

I still have a hat that he bought me from the NY Worlds Fair.  He had my name embroidered on it.  He spelled it wrong.

© Glenn R Keller 2020, All Rights Reserved