My junior high science teacher ran a small business from behind his desk while we mixed things together in the lab. It was a bus company: a fleet of buses that took kids on field trips and senior citizens off to see the fall foliage. His lack of academic focus was our permission to shift our attention elsewhere. And that year my priorities were having the right things: a crocheted sweater vest, multi-colored hair ribbons made of yarn, and the expensive Bass Weejun penny loafers I’d begged my mother for, without success, available in the Juniors department at Dayton’s.
His name was Mr. Sorenson but we called him Chuck-wad.
He’d shoo us into the biology lab at the back of the room while he flipped open his ledgers and schedule books, and began balancing his accounts. He hardly noticed us turning those Bunsen burner flames on high, torching pieces of rolled up notebook paper and watching their lacy ashes float down, dotting our Catholic school uniforms.
Somebody get the door, he’d say. The unofficial start to class.
It was before. Before the time when teachers could get in trouble for hitting kids. Before we knew what things we ought to go home and talk to our parents about. It was so ‘before’ that Elvis was still alive. It was 1973, the spring of Elvis’ comeback. He was doing a concert in Honolulu that would be broadcast across the country. We all have those images of Elvis now. Sweaty, bloated. The round belly, the white jumpsuit, the flowery leis circling his shoulders.
Chuck-wad dressed like Elvis. He paired a maroon jumpsuit with a silky shirt he kept unbuttoned too far down. He greased his hair and combed it straight back. He even sported an ascot. What made Chuck-wad creepy and cool was the fact that he taught a whole year’s worth of science without ever taking off his sunglasses.
On the days we had actual biology lectures, Chuck didn’t put up with any talking. Shut it, he’d say as he took the stage in front of the blackboard tossing the chalk from one hand to the other.
An old hockey stick hung to the right of the blackboard, near where tomorrow’s homework assignment was written. It was a goalie stick sawed in half; only the bottom blade and a short portion of the handle remained. Chuck-wad used this to paddle kids who didn’t like to cooperate. He called it giving a swat. He’d drilled several holes in the blade to cut back on wind resistance when he swung it. Some kids just need a swat to help them listen better, Chuck-wad liked to say.
It sounds odd telling it now; the way getting a swat was both embarrassing and exciting. I suppose in a sense I was giddy with all of the things an eighth-grade girl has to attend to— things like rolling up the waistband of my plaid skirt to make it shorter, re-applying coats of strawberry lip gloss in the girls’ bathroom, hiding the occasional contraband cigarette in my knee high socks. For me, all of these things constituted one thing—being noticed.
Chuck–wad wasn’t out of the ordinary when it came to hitting kids. All the male teachers at Blessed Sacrament Catholic did; there wasn’t anything clandestine about it. But for Chuck-wad it was theater; a student was singled out, the classroom door was closed, and nervous laughter accompanied the chosen one on the journey to the front of the room. We wondered each time how bad it would be.
In junior high I was a talker, and there was so much ground to cover, none of it school-related. Maybe we were planning to meet the boys again at the Westgate Theater to see Harold and Maude. We could have been discussing how much more babysitting money was needed to buy Elton John’s double album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. Whatever it was, that day I’d been completely turned around in my desk talking to my best friend, Mary Therese, when I heard him speak.
Miss McGuire, he sneered. I’d like to invite you to join me in the front of the classroom.
I slunk from my desk and quickstepped to the front of the room. Assume the position, he said. I bowed forward cupping my palms around my bent knees, my uniform skirt hiked up in the back. He never hit the girls as hard, but the first swat nearly knocked me down. My POW bracelet jangled loosely around my skinny left wrist as I fought to keep my feet.
I see myself in that classroom now from the span of half a lifetime. I’m thirteen years old, still biting my fingernails and just used my allowance money to buy freckle remover at Olson Brothers Pharmacy. I wish now I’d been clear-eyed and straightened up, looking out that open classroom window into the future. But adolescence engulfed me like a tight-fitting sweater I couldn’t shrug off. Stand up, I want to say to that eighth grader, but conformity weighs heavy and her goals are resolute.
I bent lower, keeping my eyes fixed on the flecked linoleum tile as Chuck-wad swung the paddle back to hit me again. I looked down at my shoes, scuffed brown loafers from JC Penney’s, and that was when I felt it: the wave of shame. In front of the classroom, there it was for everyone to see: my mom’s refusal to pay the extra money to get me the Bass Weejuns.
M.B. Hill is a writer, runner, and editor living in suburban Minneapolis.