My Scarlet Letter of Fourth Grade Shame

Time for a tale from my sordid past.

As you’ll soon discover, the verdict on my fourth grade self is about to be delivered.

In fourth grade, I had a teacher named Mrs. Barnabas. I’ve changed her name to protect her reputation, even though she has doubtless gone on to meet her Maker by now. She was old back then, when I was in nine. As a kid, I thought she was old as the hills. As an adult? My guess would be that back then, she was in her late 50’s, or early 60’s.

In my non-expert opinion, as a kid, I thought she was messed up. As an adult? I still think at least her BEHAVIOR was messed up. To extend mercy and grace toward her, I’ll just say that she probably had reached a point in her career where she already should have retired, and I say that based NOT on her actual age, but on some of the behaviors I’ll be describing in this story.

Sybil Barnabas exhibited some of the following behaviors:

  • She took afternoon naps, nodding away at her desk in the front of the room, while we were supposed to be doing our silent reading.
  • She indirectly was responsible for the persecution of two students by CLEARLY making them her Teacher’s Pets: one boy (Mark), one girl (Diane). Poor Diane and Mark had to fight to keep the rest of us from hating their guts. (Really, it wasn’t their fault that she fawned over them so.) They were given every privilege known to mankind, while the rest of us sat at our desks and seethed.
  • She regularly applied makeup and cologne while sitting at her desk, right in front of us. She opened her mouth, placed her bright red lipstick between her two lips, closed both her lips around it at the same time, and smeared it on, heavily. As I watched her apply it each day – sometimes several times a day – I couldn’t help but think that it looked like she was eating that tube of lipstick. The lipstick itself took on the shape of the top of a Dairy Queen Soft Serve Ice Cream Cone: one big concave curly-swirl, which came from the way she squeezed it between those lips of hers. The end result of this lipstick application was that her mouth became a smeary crimson gash across her face.
  • She would then proceed to walk the aisles and apply that wretched Desert Flower cologne to any student she happened to have taken a fancy to that day. The cologne was probably 30 years old, having gone beyond the pale, as it were, and had a rancid odeur de la Vielle Grandmère.  (Eau d’ Ol’ Grandma)
  • She sucked Lifesavers. In front of us. What’s worse, she smacked her lips and would speak to us with her speech impeded by sucking. (“Thit down, Jimmy. Go back to your theat!”) Really, this borders on cruelty to children.
  • She had salt and pepper gray and black hair, that was a lot more salt than pepper. Each day she would ask her Pet, Diane, to comb her hair, and pluck out the gray hairs. We would have been looking at Sybil’s bald white scalp if Diane had ever completely accomplished the task Sybil set before her.
  • One day, when Sybil fell asleep, we all got up out of our desks, and tiptoed around the room. I was silently giggling so hard I thought I might wet myself. Then Vic (the class clown, and the object of my affection) motioned for us all to get back in our seats, threw down his textbook on top of his desk (BAM!!!) and her head came flying up and back off her chest like a crash dummy’s. Golden memory.
  • She loved the sound of her own voice, especially reading poetry, and we could divert her from schoolwork for hours by begging her for just one more poem. “The Gingham Dog and the Calico Cat”, “The Spider and the Fly” , and “The Leak in the Dike” all come to mind. I listened to a LOT of poetry that year.

And those were just SOME of her crazy behaviors. (My apologies for the use of that word. I know of no other more fitting word, when it comes to some of the ways Sybil acted.)

So…this one time…we were doing a unit on Holland.

Sybil had stretched some newsprint paper on the back of the metal cabinet that served as a room divider. On the other side of that cabinet were hooks where we hung our coats, and in that small section of the classroom was the sink, and more storage cabinets. It’ was kind of like a little locker room/foyer part of the classroom. Also located at the front of the locker room area was our classroom’s little one potty bathroom.

On the paper on the back of the coat cabinet, we were to draw a mural of Holland: tulips, windmills, Dutch children in blonde braids and clogs, anything we could think of. I was seated on the floor, with my back to the rest of my classmates, working on the mural, while Sybil was reading, “The Leak in the Dike”. My partners in crime, Jimmy and Mark (not the teacher’s pet; a different Mark), were making me laugh, because they whispered to me that the little boy was sticking his finger on his private body part to keep himself from peeing. This (according to Jimmy and Mark) was the leak he was trying to prevent.

Selected excerpts from the poem, with apologies to the author, Phoebe Cary (But for gosh sakes…the kid’s name was Peter!) with special attention to the parts that made me bite my lip to keep from laughing out loud:

“But hark! through the noise of waters
Comes a low, clear, trickling sound;
And the child’s face pales with terror,
As his blossoms drop to the ground.”

 “For he knows the smallest leak may grow
To a flood in a single night;
And he knows the strength of the cruel sea
When loosed in its angry might.

And the boy! He has seen the danger,
And, shouting a wild alarm,
He forces back the weight of the sea
With the strength of a single arm!”
 
“For every man in that country
Takes his dear son by the hand,
And tells him of little Peter,
Whose courage saved the land.”

 

So, I’m sitting on the floor, with my back to Sybil, my shoulders shaking with stifled laughter,  because she’s reading this poem about a little boy who, in my mind – thanks to Mark and Jimmy – has to stay up all night long, trying to keep from spouting a leak that would take out all of Holland. And then Jimmy has the temerity to go into that little bathroom that I was sitting near and start mimicking making tinkle noises and poopie sounds (my mother’s training forbids me from using the “f” word, ever. Sorry.) out the vent at the bottom of the little bathroom door, just to make me laugh, and I LOST IT, giggling a lot less quietly.

And SYBIL SENT ME TO THE OFFICE!!!!!!!!

Not Mark.
Not Jimmy.

ME!!!

The good girl!!!!

Who up until this year had ALWAYS BEEN the teacher’s pet!!!!!!!!!

I was mortified.

The principal made me call my mother.

I was at fault. I was guilty, and I knew it. I was sitting in the PRINCIPAL’S OFFICE, for crying out loud. I deserved any punishment my mother doled out. I wore my guilt like Hester wore her scarlet letter. 

And I SOBBED into the phone that I had been sent there for giggling, and now I was SURE that my mother wouldn’t let me go on the Girl Scout Camping Trip that was scheduled to leave that afternoon, after school.

And you know what?

My mother told me it was OK, and not to worry about it. And of course I could go camping.

From this end of life, it’s possible that my mother was glad to get rid of me for a weekend camping trip, and didn’t want her weekend spoiled. But, knowing my Mom like I do, it’s more likely that she really didn’t want to take something that was so very important to me away from me. (Especially not since my offense was…giggling.)

But all I can remember feeling? I felt the TREMENDOUS RELIEF that must come to a prisoner who has been pardoned at one minute before midnight.

Grace: certainly undeserved.

What a treasure!

It still makes me smile, to think of my Mom offering that to me.

Reminds me to pass that gift on to my own kids, from time to time.

In the words of that old hymn:

“My sin,
(oh, the bliss of this glorious thought),
 my sin, not in part, but the whole
is nailed to the cross,
and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord, oh, my soul!”

Show a little grace toward the undeserving today, in honor of ALL the grace that’s been shown to you, despite your own guilty state.

Who knows what grace in others you might inspire someday?


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