For the first several years of grade school, all of my teachers were sweet, elderly women who fawned on each student as if they were a favorite grandchild. These gentle souls would call us names like “hon” and “buddy” and treat most instances of misbehavior as minor infractions brought about by kids just being kids. It didn’t take long for my friends and I to come to understand, and then exploit, this atmosphere of generosity. Unfinished homework, playground scuffles, and writing on the bathroom walls could all be explained away with a sorrowful look and a “promise” to try better next time.
But these laissez-faire days came to an abrupt end on the first morning of my sixth-grade year. “Your name is on your desk. Find it and take a seat,” said the middle-aged woman standing by the chalkboard as I entered the classroom. The teacher was tall and thin with wiry, streaked hair the color of asphalt shingles. On the board she had written her name—Mrs. Jenkins—and as she droned on about her classroom rules I began to feel sorry for Mr. Jenkins, if in fact there were a Mr. Jenkins. I found it hard to believe someone would actually marry this woman.
It only took a few days for Mrs. Jenkins to wield her power and strike fear into our 11-year-old hearts. A week into the school year, my friend Bob was implicated in the drawing of a rudimentary penis on the side of a filmstrip projector. When he eventually confessed, Mrs. Jenkins opened the bottom drawer of her desk and pulled out a long wooden paddle. She then took Bob by the wrist and led him into the hallway. A minute later, three loud pops rang out as the class exchanged horrified looks. “This woman is insane!” I thought—and any ideas I had of drawing genitals on school property immediately evaporated.
As the year progressed, Mrs. Jenkins’ icy demeanor never thawed. While most of the class fell into order and obeyed her directions, I tried to bribe my way into her good graces with gifts of Pepperidge Farm cookies and humorous coffee mugs. Offerings she would accept with the thinnest of smiles and a slight rolling of the eyes. Bob, being a prolific penis artist, took a completely different route altogether, deciding it was easiest to just wear three pairs of underwear simultaneously to diminish the effects of his inevitable paddlings.
By the end of the school year, I had finally surrendered to Mrs. Jenkins’ authority. I finished my homework, remained silent in class, walked in a straight line to and from the cafeteria. I was a shell of my former self. It had taken several months, but the woman had broken my desire to misbehave.
On the last day of school, as the other sixth-grade classes ate pizza and played games, Mrs. Jenkins showed us a film about the Revolutionary War. After the film, she handed out our report cards and reminded us to behave ourselves during the summer break. When the dismissal bell rang, I bolted from the room like a hostage whose ransom had finally been paid. As I ran to the school bus, I passed the teachers’ parking lot and glanced toward Mrs. Jenkins’ car, a blue Volkswagen Beetle. On the hood someone had drawn a penis out of what looked to be shaving cream. It was Bob’s last work of art before starting junior high, and I still consider it a masterpiece.