A tale of violence towards children from teachers.
*Names have been changed in this story
When I was a kid all I wanted to do was live on a desert island and now, twenty years later, I sometimes still want to escape to that island but the reasons now are never as bad as they were then.
My favourite book as a child was Huckleberry Finn. I had read Tom Sawyer and liked it but Huck was the one I kept rereading late at night under the blankets with the aid of the dim light from a plastic torch. Huck was a free man, he did what he wanted when he wanted and most of the time there were no adults to tell him what to do. Thinking about it now, all the books I read as a child were all about escapism. Huck Finn, Robinson Crusoe and Treasure Island. All of these books did exactly what they were supposed to, took me away from the place I hated – real life.
The wood felt cool against my face, well I suppose it did, I couldn’t really feel the wood as my cheek had started to numb up. My mind tried to rationalise what had just happened but it had all been too quick for my ten-year-old brain to comprehend. One minute I was sitting at my desk writing, surrounded by a roomful of classmates who were all singing their hearts out and the next my head had been smashed into the desk. It was lucky for me that I’d turned my head just in time or no doubt my nose would have been creamed over the solid wood. I then heard the all too familiar scream behind me and I knew then exactly what had happened.
Unknown to me, as I had sat scribbling away, my teacher had been silently creeping round the classroom, slowly making her way to where I was sitting and then quicker than a woman of her age should have been able to she had grabbed the back of my head by the hair and proceeded to slam my face off the desk with the words, “this is what happens to children who write when they should be singing.”
Welcome to my primary school days, my formative years. Four years of non-stop fear from the age 8 to 12.
I’m getting ahead of myself here. I should be setting the scene.
At the age of about six I was a normal well-adjusted kid, just average. I used to get up early for school, in fact at that age I loved school. On my first day of school my mother took my photograph, new school uniform, lopsided haircut and a smile that in a few years wouldn’t return for a very long time. I was the boy who told the girl who lived next door who cried her eyes out as she left her house for her first day of school that it would be okay, there was no reason to cry, school was a great place and she would find it fun.
Four years later I would be lying on a doctor’s table with his finger up my ass being observed by three medical students, with only me knowing of course that there was no cure for what I had because it was an illness that didn’t exist and it would only disappear when I left primary school. Sorry getting ahead of myself again.
Okay, so the first three or four years were great, I had a wonderful teacher, Mrs Dawson, who took us to the zoo and to parks, and who let us sit outside to read when it was sunny, and life was fun at that point. Mrs Dawson cried when she left for another job but if I’d know what had been in store for us then I would have no doubt been the one crying. The first years had been great and I had no reason to think the rest would be any different, why would I?
Time to wise up.
Time to begin learning.
Mrs White walked into the classroom, her first day. She was youngish, early thirties perhaps, bad acne, long frizzy hair, very thin, wiry. She sat down and took class register. Nothing out of the normal although she didn’t seem very friendly but hey, maybe she was just nervous. Then something strange happened. She sneezed. That one sneeze was the start of it and from then on I learned of the emotions fear and hate. From that one sneeze my real education in school and in life had begun.
“Crystal and Jones. Come out here, front of the class.”
I still didn’t realise anything was wrong, why should I?
“Face the front of the class. Now this is what happens when you laugh at people sneezing.”
She picked up a heavy wooden blackboard pointer and slapped it against the back of our knees. At that age we were still in short trousers and you could hear the smack echo around the classroom. It didn’t really hurt, it stung for a minute but we were more bewildered than anything else. Why would anyone find her sneezing funny? I hadn’t even noticed her sneezing, it didn’t strike me as a particularly laughter inducing moment.
I sat down. We were all looking at each other, shrugging our shoulders and smiling slightly but there was a gnawing sensation creeping in that she was definitely not like Mrs Dawson. Slowly but surely, every day, it started to get worse.
The change that came over our classroom happened quickly.
You no longer asked questions only answered them and god help you if you didn’t know the answers. She quickly started her classroom segregation. Week one, the class was split up into sections. The slower kids at the front near her desk with the average achievers in the middle of the room and the brightest kids at the back. When I think back I realise that in her view, the slower kids, the “stupid or imbeciles” as she called them were the poorer students or the ones who looked a bit strange and they were kept close to her for one reason, so she didn’t have to travel far if she needed to exorcise some hate.
These small neglected kids were her easiest targets and gave her the most satisfaction if she needed a punching bag to get rid of her inner demons. Me, I was in the middle achievers, not too stupid and not too bright but this was no escape from Mrs White’s wrath.
One morning we were learning to tell the time. For some reason I was having particular difficulty in this, I don’t know why, I just couldn’t grasp the fundamentals of the 24hr clock. I stood there as she went over it and over it again, her extremely thin patience almost worn out, my stomach tightening with fear. In a minute I knew she would lose it and start screaming at me. She was like clockwork and if I knew how to tell the time I could tell you precisely how long it would take for her to lose it and move up a level from verbal to physical abuse.
The rest of my class looked at me with sympathy but I knew that inwardly they were just grateful the pressure was off them for a while. I knew this because I had been in their place often enough, thankful that it wasn’t me.
She picked up the ruler and came toward me. Here we go, jab – straight to the ribs, next a quick slap off the head, her face right up to mine, red, screaming. I swear, apart from my father I had never seen anyone so angry. Her acne stood out, red and blotchy as her mouth worked furiously, spraying hate and saliva, and then she gave me what in her mind was a punishment but was to me an afternoon’s holiday. She sent me back to the infant’s classroom to sit with the six-year-olds, which included my younger brother. In her strange little world she must have thought that perhaps the humiliation would magically straighten out my time telling abilities.
So it went on.
Day after day, month after month, continual fear, wondering which way she was going to blow next and what little thing would kick off her volatile temper. I was given the belt nearly every other day for something or other and I simply came to expect it. Get a question wrong or miss church on Sunday with the rest of the class and her best friend would be out of the drawer. That piece of brown leather, half an inch thick, two inches wide and a foot long. She would raise it high above her head then bring it down sharply over your outstretched palm.
I actually came not to mind the belt as it only stung for a few minutes and I could handle that much better than a shouting fit, which could last up to fifteen minutes along with hair pulling and slaps to the face.
But it had to end sooner or later and for one boy it all became too much. Billy had been transferred to our class from another school recently and one day, understandably, he decided he just couldn’t take this anymore. She was sitting at her desk, off on one of her shouting fits and we were all sitting rigid, wondering who was going to be first in the firing line when something close to miraculous happened. Billy, the smallest boy in the class, stood up and started walking towards the door.
I couldn’t believe it, maybe there was hope. If he left then perhaps he would tell his parents, something none of us had ever done because if we told our parents they might come up to the school and something might get done but then again something might not and it wasn’t our parents who were trapped in this prison for seven hours a day with a maniac in charge. And did you want to be the one who would be singled out by her for special treatment once your mother or father were out of earshot?
He was headed towards the door, my heart was pounding as I silently encouraged him to make it. He was almost at the door when she suddenly looked over and saw him. His hand was on the door handle opening the door when she jumped from her seat and ran directly at him and that was it. She grabbed him by the hair and started pulling him brutally back into the centre of the classroom. My heart sank, nothing was going to change and this didn’t really matter. She started screaming as she shook his head, “This is my classroom. Where do you think you are going? I am in charge here and no one leaves without my say so.”
But then, as the screaming continued, the classroom door burst open and another new arrival, a teacher who had only been here for a few weeks and must have had all he could take of this noise coming through the wall entered the room, “What the hell is going on in here? I can hear you shouting at the other end of the corridor.”
She spluttered out some excuse but it was no use, she had been caught red handed. Billy was lying in a crumpled heap on the floor. Her face was bright red, out of breath, and that was it. That was the end of Mrs White. She was taken from the classroom and we never heard of her again, nothing was mentioned about her, she just disappeared and relief swept through all of us. Thirty children who had endured two years of this abuse sat like stunned rabbits wondering what was going to happen next.
Exit stage right Mrs White. Enter Mrs Grey.
You wouldn’t think that 30 kids could be this unlucky. I can’t actually remember the first day that she arrived and I can’t actually remember much of the two years that she taught us. Time has blanked out a lot of that period. But where Mrs White was a demon only intent on crushing our spirit, Mrs Grey was the real thing. She was the anti-Christ. She was the bogey man that I’ll tell my kids about if they won’t go to sleep at night, the one I had to face every day for another two years, teaching us with her special tools of fear, violence and hate. She carried on the baton in the relay race from Mrs White and now it was me who just couldn’t face any more of this.
She was in her mid-40’s. Tall, maybe six foot or maybe she just seemed taller to me then. She had a mass of curly black and grey hair along with the most sunken-in, dark ringed eyes I had ever seen. It was the same pattern as before. Belt every day, hair pulling, screaming fits and the day she slammed my head into the desk that was it, that was enough, this was the day my inexplicable illness began.
I had tried to get out of class before but that had mostly taken the form of running away from home. I never got very far and when found was given a severe ass whipping from my father, so that plan was out the window. I had to find something where the end result would not be me getting a beating either from my teacher or my father.
So I developed a mystery illness.
The usual to start out with. Stomach aches were good for a day or two but then strangely my ribs began to hurt as well.
Finally, one day, I went all the way, I couldn’t even walk. My legs had stopped working and I cried. I made sure I did this in front of my classmate who had arrived to walk to school with me. If I cried in front of him then I must be for real. So the visits to the hospitals began. My mother would take me every week or so for blood tests or x-rays and to me this was great, no school and no Mrs Grey but inside I knew this couldn’t last.
The doctors were becoming more and more skeptical. Was something else wrong with me? How was my home life? How was my school life? Was I being bullied at school? Yes, hello, wake up. I’ve got a psycho teacher during the day and then at night I come home to what’s now described as a functioning alcoholic for a father, although the functioning part of the description was debatable and he wasn’t averse to simply throwing me out of the house in the morning whether I was pretending to be sick or not. It was a choice between two evils. It was shitsville – this was not what happened on Little House on the Prairie.
Whenever I did return to school I saw more than enough to kick my sore stomach into action.
One day another new boy arrived – tall, blonde, good-looking kid, like a lamb to the slaughter. He got the treatment pretty much straight away as she grabbed him by the hair for something as petty as talking in class and proceeded to scream into his face, shouting that his looks would make no difference in his classroom. I looked at this poor eleven year old kid, his face red, tears streaming out his eyes, biting his lower lip both with anger and to keep himself from crying. I felt sorry for the new kids because we at least knew what to expect, they had no idea and it was a horrible thing to watch as they received their first punishment learning moments. I watched all this and knew that tomorrow I had a sick day coming.
If anything, apart from the fear that I had, I had mostly sank into a state of just not caring anymore. It was a choice between mystery illness and being found out from my parents or psychoville Mrs Grey and continual fear. I mean there is no way anyone can justify her treatment of us.
“Your looks don’t make any difference in my class.”
She was saying this to an 11 year old kid. Where was her thinking coming from? When you’re 11 years old, and this was near the end of the seventies, you really didn’t give a damn what you looked like.
One day she split up myself and the girl who had been sitting next to me for years just because she had noticed that at the same time we both had our hands down by the table where she couldn’t see them. To her we were doing unspeakable things under that table. I don’t know what had been going on in her personal life but I don’t think it could’ve been good and she was coming in here every day projecting her problems onto her little toys that couldn’t or wouldn’t, through fear of reprisals, fight back.
One good stroke of luck which did befall me around this time was that for some reason I was now, voluntarily and on request, able to make myself vomit. I can still do it to this day. Roll up, roll up, come see the vomiting boy. I was a novelty for a while to some of my friends and if things were getting too hairy in class I would just hurl all over my desk and be sent to the sick room for the rest of the day, the envy of all my friends.
Meanwhile, my hospital visits were becoming numbered, the doctor’s patience was being sorely tested by his inability to find anything wrong with me and no doubt he knew this was some elaborate scheme of mine to get out of school, he had said near enough the same thing to my mother. This scepticism is probably the reason why one day I came to be lying on a table with the doctor’s finger probing my ass. I don’t know what he expected to find up there, the pretend pain was after all in my ribs and I was pretty sure his finger couldn’t extend that far. Maybe it was more adult psychology, the humiliation factor, doing this with three medical students watching. No joy for him then. At that point only amputation would have made me give up my daytime acting role and even then it would be a close call.
Finally though, it was all over.
My Oscar winning, exorcist-vomiting role was old news to my father whose anger could out-top both Mrs White and Grey put together. He threw me out of the house one morning and ordered me to school and I had no choice but to rejoin my class. Now there was no escape. A few days later I gave it one last try with the illness but my mother, for once, decided to play detective and took me to school herself.
Shit. I had pushed the envelope too far.
It was 11am, class was in and my fear was unparalleled. This was just what I had been dreading.
The school was silent except for the sound of our shoes and my thumping heart as my mother led me up the corridor, asking at each classroom, “Is this it? Is this the one?”
Finally we got to the door and for a split second I thought of making a run for it, just get out of there because this was going to be bad. Not only was my mother going to say something to Satan herself but also in front of all my classmates. I would have the humiliation of having brought my mother to school, a definite schoolyard ‘no’ rule. She knocked at the door and Mrs Grey’s voice inside the room stopped. Complete silence as she walked towards the door and opened it. I couldn’t look up, I couldn’t face her. I didn’t want this person near my mother because I knew what would happen.
She was sweetness and smiles as we walked into the classroom and I could hear the whispers coming from the other kids. My mother was talking and questioning, asking if there were any problems with my schoolwork, telling Lucifer that I was a bright kid, always reading, she just couldn’t understand what was wrong with me, why I just didn’t want to go to school.
Mrs Grey smiled, revealing teeth the same colour as her name, her lips cracked. It was a smile that didn’t reach those dead, tired eyes and she told my mother not to worry, she would take care of me, everything would be fine, and I hated her more that day for fooling my mother, for thinking she had got one over on a person I loved.
Finally I had no choice but to give in to the hopeless realisation that Mrs Grey was stronger and more believable because an adult wouldn’t abuse the position of trust they had been given or at least that’s probably what my mother thought. Mrs Grey could lie and get away with it due to the simple fact that she was older and I wasn’t saying any different. So my mother walked out and here I was, the lion’s den and my mother had dropped off the food and left.
For two days nothing happened and I started to think that maybe it had worked, maybe she was too scared to pick on me now. If she tried anything again maybe my mother would come back and…..but that’s a lot of maybes and deep down I knew that it wasn’t going to be that east, she just wasn’t the sort of person to let a kid get one over on her. She had to have complete power and after two days she showed, once again, what that power was.
Top Ten Mental Arithmetic.
If there was ever a book I hated it was Top Ten Mental Arithmetic. Every day we would do ten arithmetic questions from this book and as the question number went higher, the questions became more difficult. I can still remember that book, its blue cover held me in fear. I was completely useless at what it held within. Fractions, percentages, equations, I just couldn’t understand them, they just didn’t make any sense to me at all.
I would copy furiously from whoever was sitting next to me the answers to these hieroglyphical questions but if the teacher had asked me how I had come to the answer I wouldn’t be capable of telling her. So I had to hope that she would either pass me by or just settle for the answer.
But Mrs Grey had been patiently waiting her opportunity – as the film
Poltergeist states, she knew my weaknesses, she knew what scared me. As I lay on my bed each night, trying to stay awake, trying to make the night last as long as I could, my mind brought up recurring images. I saw her sitting at home going over it and over it again – her revenge. Rocking back and forth in her chair, slugging back Gin, brooding silently and then cackling with laughter. She would have been planning this precisely from the moment my mother left the classroom. But she could wait, she had patience. She wasn’t going anywhere and neither was I.
She walked around the classroom after our fifteen minutes to complete the arithmetic questions were up. My answers were as usual copied from the brainiac sitting next to me.
She walked around the class randomly shouting out children’s names.
“Joseph, give me the answer to number one.”
“Elaine, number two.”
I had 10 chances out of 30 kids to be picked and as the question numbers got higher, my anxiety lessened.
“Stuart, number eight.”
That’s it, I thought, maybe not today. Two more questions to go, not today.
She looked directly at me, “You. Number nine.”
I mumbled the answer.
“Stand up and give me the answer to number nine.”
She was saying this nonchalantly while wandering around the classroom. I stood up, the wooden chair scraping slowly on the floor. I could see outside through the window as I stood. A bright summer day, clear sky, green hills in the distance, out there it looked like peace. It also looked like freedom. Rabbits would be playing on those hills. It must be good to be a rabbit, running about all day, no one to tell you what to do.
“The answer,” she shouted.
I gave the answer and made to sit down.
“And how did you come to that answer?” A question she had asked no one else that day.
I began to um and ah and started to bluff.
“Come out to the front, write it on the blackboard.”
I walked slowly to the front of the class, took the chalk and started to write on the board but I knew, even before I had reached the board, that I would have to give up. I didn’t know, I just didn’t know. She walked down to me and started her rant, punctuating her sentences with jabs to the ribs.
“Well not so smart now. Here’s a boy who reads a lot, or so his mother says.” She put all her emphasis on the word mother, spitting it out through her teeth. “Why are your lips trembling? You have a habit of doing that whenever you’re upset.”
I knew what she wanted.
I knew that if I cried she would give up after while and she would have won or at least in her pathetic little world she would have won. I could feel the tears beginning to form around my eyes and my lips were trembling but I didn’t cry because I realised that this would all be over soon and whether I cried or not it would have to stop sooner or later, and as Tom Sawyer always said, “What’s shouting? A little bit of shouting doesn’t hurt you.”
And when she had finished, from that day on, for the few months I had left in her class, she never came near me again.
They say that you never forget a good teacher but it’s the bad ones that stick in my mind. These were what they call the formative years. These were the first adults, besides my parents, that I came into contact with and now, twenty years later, I can still smell that classroom and see those frightened children’s faces and I can hear them crying as every day they were bullied, not by someone their own age, who they would have a chance of standing up to, but by adults.
Their elders, their betters.
Adults who brought took their troubles and turned them into the children’s problems.
Their elders, their betters,
When we finally escaped that place and went onto secondary school our class was split up into different classes. This was probably for the best and meant we could forget that humiliation, not be reminded of it by each other, it was a chance to try and become a different person. I know for me, secondary school was a shock. I couldn’t understand at first why the teachers weren’t belting us and not shouting at us for wrong answers.
School became, at least for a while, a fun place to learn, although an institution is an institution and sooner or later if you break the rules there are those who will punish you in order to remind you that real life is waiting and this is just a dry run to get you ready.
If I had a wish, like the ones granted by the genie in the bottle, those stupid stories that young kids really believe can happen, like searching for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow or believing that if you dig a deep enough hole you’ll either find buried treasure or Australia, if I had that wish I wouldn’t want to be rich or successful. I’d wish for the wisdom that comes, sometimes, with age but to have it as a child. I’d wish to go back to that classroom knowing what I know now, confronting the enemies from my childhood.
But would I really do anything differently?
A few years ago when I was about 24 or 25, I saw her.
I was in a car park at a supermarket one lunch-time, on an ordinary working weekday, thinking about nothing much except getting out of the drizzly rain and there she was. I was about to get in my car. My girlfriend was waiting for me inside and I was opening the door when for no reason at all I looked behind me and there, getting out of her car, was Mrs Grey.
I stood there and stared, she hadn’t changed. She hadn’t changed at all from what I could see. The same dull, greyish skin, the same dark sunken-in, ringed eyes. I kept staring as she locked the car and began to walk toward the supermarket. What should I do?
My stomach started to tighten up just as it had 15 years ago in her classroom, just as it had on that final day of primary school when she took each pupil individually and shook their hand and happily wished them good luck with the rest of their lives, as if she were a great friend to us or even a good teacher.
Should I walk up to her and say something? What could I say?
“Hi, remember me? You turned my life to shit for two years when I was a kid.”
I could follow her round the store and stand at the checkout line next to her, see if she would look at my face, watch as she looked at me blankly, trying to make out what was so familiar about me, the boy emerging through the adult’s face. Maybe she would recognise me and start to say something and smile as if I were an old friend, only for her face to fall as she noticed that I wasn’t smiling back, just slowly shaking my head in pity and disgust.
But maybe that’s how people go crazy, reliving the past again and again, maybe you have to bury it and move on. How long can you keep blaming your childhood for any problems or failures which confront you as an adult? What is the statute of limitations on that?
In the end she walked away from her car and into the supermarket, and I got into my car.
We were the only two people in the car park. She never looked over. She never saw me. When I think about it now, I doubt that she ever did.
About the Author: Garry Crystal
Garry Crystal is a freelance writer living in the UK. His short stories and articles have appeared in print and online including Expats Post, The Andirondack Review, Turnrow Journal, Roadside Fiction and Orato. br> His first book Leaving London is available on Amazon and other retailers now. br> View My Profile