By the fourth or fifth grade I knew I wanted to be a school teacher. Before then I had known only women teachers and the thought hadn’t yet taken shape. But after having Mr. Phelps and Mr. Taylor as role models – although nobody was calling them that back then – I was pretty much convinced. They could make English and history seem happy. Besides, I was finally planning to do what had been predicted for me earlier by my kinfolk. I was born a school house; they said I was marked to teach. Predestined, I guess.
Here’s why: Several years before, a clan of my ancestors was living on farmland in south Georgia. Most all the roads were dirt and chancy and dangerous for the young kids trying to get to school. Grandpa owned a farm and a country store; he furnished the land and some fixtures; and his clan and other neighbors built a good-sized building for a schoolhouse. Volunteers, including Grandpa, filled in for a while as teachers.
A few years later the county built a replacement. Grandpa divided the old school into two one-room “apartments,” with two out-houses. (Electricity and running water would come later.) As some of his children were trying to fly the nest, in the middle of the Great Depression, it helped to ease them off. Dad had tried several things—including the Army, and farming. So he and Mom stopped by there once more to have a place to stay and do some share-cropping. And to wait for me, I guess.
Early on I was still holding to the thought of teaching. By the sixth grade I had changed school districts six times in little over a year, and joined a math class, mid-term. They were well into fractions. I’d never seen any, and stayed behind for a full year to prove it. My classmates moved on and I felt abandoned. Gwen, a pretty blue-eyed girl with corn silk hair and freckles on her nose, came into that sixth grade and I developed a strong crush. Being held back for a full year made my dreams of teaching look iffy. Gwen’s smiles and friendship gave me courage.
In seventh grade, I met Mrs. Mims and everything took on a new hopelessness. What’s the female version of “misogynist”? That’s what she was and the girls could do no wrong. We boys didn’t confront her about it in class, but in private we decided she hated us. She would pick arguments with us and we felt obligated to retaliate. That caused escalation I guess, and even caused her to threaten physical harm to some of us: “I’m gonna come back there and snatch ye bald-headed!” The first time was scary. After about the third episode, it got to be a game. Some comedian would do something stupid to provoke her and sure enough, she would go off again.
A few of us, even some of the girls who were being affected by the carryings-on, could escape her room one hour each day by going to choir practice with Mrs. Hutchinson. She let me join and later we even sang in a concert at GSCW in Milledgeville (Georgia State College for Women). I sang alto, Gwen sang soprano and the whole choir won a Superior certificate. That made us feel good about ourselves.
But my commitment to teaching was still taking hits. And my confidence kept sagging. The whole class was beset with guilt and dread and a sense that something else was about to happen. Lots of her attention was assigned to me, even though I was trying to stay quiet and, hopefully, invisible.
One morning when everybody was taking a test, Mims went to the rear wall to get a cleaning bucket. She saw evidence that somebody had been spitting tobacco into it and asked Beason who it was. He couldn’t talk because of the plug of tobacco in his mouth, but pointed at me.
She ignored my denial, exempted me from the test and ordered that I take some buckets of water and all the dirty erasers to the oak tree and wash them. Being exempted excited me, and two hours later the erasers were good as new. The long time I took would have attracted attention if it wasn’t for Felton Jenkins. He had been assigned the same chore one morning last semester, lingered, was forgotten about, and only showed up after the last bus had left. Coach Frank, the PE guy, took him home in his pick-up. It was reported that Mims never said anything to him about it. He was bigger and older than any of the other students, and had a funny set to his eyes. Maybe that’s why. And he was pretty famous already because he was thought to be the first student in that class to register for the draft and get his voter card the same day. His Pa wouldn’t let him quit school until he had a regular job. The draft board settled it for them about two weeks later.
Looking back, the friction that developed between Mims and us boys became apparent early and could have been stopped. It probably had to do with her ego. Much of it could have come from her own dad, if the things she told about him were true. What seemed to be her exaggerations could have been from his exaggerations. Maybe she was just sharing. Children can do things like that. Even grown-up children. Even if they’re teachers.
She claimed that he had once moved to Miami and taught the citizens there how to use steel-reinforced concrete to stand up to the hurricanes. None of us knew what she was talking about, but she repeated the tale several times, with an honest face.
And she told us about releasing pressure-cooker steam into a refrigerator and causing lightning and thunder. She might have been repeating something he had told her. Gwen seemed to believe it but was probably the only one who did. I’ve always regretted those bad experiences with Mims. Maybe we could have made it better by trying harder. I guess we were too young to consider it.
A few weeks later, dad took a job in another town, and I would change school districts for the seventh and last time. That ended my puppy-love for the girl with the sky-blue eyes and I eventually graduated; but I put my teaching dreams and college off for a while. Longer than I had planned, it turned out.
Some thirty years later a building boom was taking place in small St. Mary’s, on Georgia’s southernmost coast. A nuclear submarine base was under construction and I was involved with a good bit of it. The fishing village with a paper mill was being transformed into a big city and new businesses were sprouting all over – eating joints, all sorts of merchandising stores, taverns and even banks. One day I went with two contractors to a pub for beer and pizza. We sat at the bar, two stools from the cash register.
Several minutes and two pizzas later, the cashier’s glances were making me uncomfortable and I started taking a few closer looks. The years and mileage were showing but there was something familiar about her. Then it clicked and I started say it, but she beat me to it: “Ever have a teacher named Mims?” She had short blond hair and clear blue eyes. It was Gwen.
Wisps from the past still lingered on the hardened face, and there was enough softness left to see her old self, if you knew how to look. Gwen the softball star and the last one standing in a spelling bee. Even the sweet, clear voice ringing from the choir as we sang Allelujah! She was still in there, someplace. I hadn’t thought of her in years.
We got into a spree of reminiscing. Who married who; who went to which college and who went into military service. On and on for a good twenty minutes. She had been married twice; once to a charter boat captain. Felton Jenkins had been killed in an accident overseas. Korea, she thought. Mims had moved back to West Virginia to be near her aging parents.
My friends moved to a table to give us some privacy. They misunderstood, but I’d explain later. Then it was over. Nothing else to talk about. We both tried to keep it going, but it got even more awkward. Another five minutes, then I told her how nice it was to see her and wished her the best and promised to drop by again.
We drove back to the job site in a misty, wintry downpour that finished ruining the day for me. I had been disappointed by the tattoo on her upper arm, but didn’t let on about it. It was a fading red cherry with a dull green leaf on top; you could tell they had been there for a long time. Four words – two on top and two below casually referred to a transient phase of her womanhood that had been sacrificed. There were some age spots on her forearms. And some dim bruising; the kind you get from taking blood thinners.
I never went back. I wanted to remember the straw-haired sweet little girl who always smiled at me and made school so much easier. And kissed my cheek in the dark on that bus ride back from Milledgeville. But the tattoo would always be there, contradicting and denying me the innocence of my own memories.
I finally got the four-year degree I had promised my parents and myself. But it was for managing and not for teaching. And I never saw Gwen again.