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Thursday, January 22, 2009

Mrs. Pettebrew

Everyone has that one teacher they can reflect back on and say, “This is the one who really made a difference in my life.” Mrs. Pettebrew, my second grade teacher, was not that one. She was a tough, drill sergeant of a woman. As a strict disciplinarian who had no capacity for nonsense (“foolishness,” she called it), Mrs. Pettebrew had a mission for us 8-year olds. She was to teach us, in a carefully regulated classroom, Southerly manners, precise hygiene procedures, and good citizenship.

Boys were expected to be genteel in an Ashley Wilkes sort of way. Girls were expected to be sweet and clean and to absolutely never, ever have bangs that blocked their vision. Whenever the class made a trip to the water fountain, a boy was selected to hold the spring-loaded knob in the on position, which left the girls with one hand to balance and the other hand to pull back their hair while they drank. We learned that “Ladies First” was not just some hackneyed phrase. It was, According to Mrs. P., the law. Sometimes Mrs. P. would trip up the fountain knob holder. Right before the first boy went for his sip, she would say to the knob holder, with an all-too-recognizable tone of displeasure, “I would like a drink, too, please.” She was, after all, a lady, too, and she came first, or at least before the boys.

We were constantly commanded to pick up trash on the campus, and if she saw some litter on the ground, she would dispatch one of us to go and pick it up. That would be followed, of course, by a trip to the in-classroom sink where we would wash our hands with cold water and Borax powder. She cut all the scratchy brown paper towels in half with the paper cutter, and we were only allowed a half sheet for drying. It was a sin, naturally, to waste anything. She even had a special metal chalk holder that could hold a column of chalk fragments that could be used until they disappeared, thus eliminating the ever-so-expensive chalk waste that the other teachers in the school recklessly never thought about.

Each Monday a new Tooth and Nails Monitor was selected to inspect and report on the hygiene of his peers. Every morning we all had to sit and display our palms flat on the desk with fingers spread. The Tooth and Nails Monitor would then stand in front of each student and check to make sure there was no dirt underneath his or her fingernails. He would also make you grin and show him your teeth before asking you, “Did you brush your teeth?” You always answered affirmatively, whether you brushed that morning or not. After inspecting all the children, the Tooth and Nails Monitor would then report back to Mrs. Pettebrew, and any child with soiled nails or bad breath was summoned to the front of the room to explain to the class the reason for their blatant disregard of proper hygiene.

There was one boy named Elliot who loved being Tooth and Nails Monitor, and everyone in the class was more than happy for him to volunteer. Elliot had an Elmer Fudd-ish speech impediment, which, to an eight-year-old equates to a flashing neon sign that reads, “Make Fun of Me Behind My Back!” His, “Did you brush your teeth?” question came out, “Butt ta teef?” Of course, the mere mention of a phrase that has the word “butt” in it was carte blanche for unending snickering. “Butt ta teef” became an overused, pre-bedtime phrase in our family that lasted for years but was forgotten about after we aged and moved on. Recently when my sister visited and said before retiring, “Guess I’ll go butt ta teef,” we had a good laugh.

Butt ta teef. I love those little lines that have meaning only to a family clique. Every family has them, and you can usually draw one of them out of someone by asking them what they called their grandparents. I have an old high school friend, Paul, who even today refers to his now-deceased grandparents as “Nana and Gang-Gang.”

“So, Paul, what are you doing for Christmas this year?” I asked him not so long ago.

“We’re opening presents and having dinner at Nana and Gang-Gang’s,” he said, with a totally straight face.

Oh, well that sounds great. Don’t forget your rattle and pacifier. To be fair, we called, and still refer to my grandfather as “Pap-Pap.”

Back to Mrs. Pettebrew. Our second grade classroom was equipped with a rest room with a teeny, little second-grader-sized toilet about the size of a large mixing bowl. If you wanted to use the toilet, you would have to raise your hand and ask permission, and then you would have to write your name on the chalk board when you went in and draw a line through your name after you were done. At the end of the day there would be the record of everyone’s bathroom activities, which Mrs. Pettebrew took note of, and she would send you home with a note to your parents if you went more frequently than she deemed necessary. Only one boy’s parents had the unmitigated gall to send a note back, insisting that Darryl be allowed to use the toilet whenever he felt the urge. And naturally, he abused this right. He would raise his hand, write his name, run into the bathroom and stay there while all the hard questions were being asked. We all envied and hated him. He could pee ten times a day if he wanted to. Lucky stiff.

Mrs. Pettebrew, stout and well dressed (always with matching pumps and handbag), was meticulously made-up, coiffed and perfumed. Yet she was militaristically strict and use words like “cross” as an adverb, as in: “Don’t you be cross with me, little boy.” Terrified of making a mistake and having her come down on us, we were always on our best behavior. She could destroy you with one sentence. Forty-two years later, I can still remember the traumatizing sentence she used to cut me down to size. Every word.

During our music session, three kids would stand an front of the room to lead the class in song. Mrs. Pettebrew, because she was southern, could play the upright piano which was situated in the room so that when she played, her back was to the class. So while she tickled the ivories, if you were a daredevil, you could do bad things and not get caught.

It was the last week of school. I had made good grades. I had been elected to the citizenship council. I was a star pupil, a role model who had proven that even after losing a parent the year before, I could still bounce back and be an inspiration to everyone.

So I was one of the song leaders, and we were singing “Bobby Shafto.”

Bobby Shafto’s fine and fair, combing out his yellow hair…

I don’t know what made me do it, but during the hair line, I pantomimed combing my hair, which then was a crew cut, so there wasn’t much to comb, and I guess that was funny. When the song was over, Darryl, the student with the most frequent urinator points, told on me.

“Is that true, Billy?” Mrs. P. asked me. “Did you make hair-combing gestures?”

I felt my face burn red. All I could do was shrug, the eight-year-old equivalent of admitting guilt.

And then she said it: “I always thought you were one of my best students, but now I take it all back.”

OUCH! God, a whole year of being good and fine and fair, and that, that WOMAN just dropped the piano on me. I looked at Darryl, pleased with himself, the class bad boy who could pee anytime he wanted to, winning out over Mr. Perfect. He cupped his hand over his mouth and pointed mockingly at me. He would grow up to inherit his father’s business, which was and is still frequently under investigation for its links to organized crime.

We did get a break once a week from Mrs. Pettebrew; one half-hour when we could let down our fine and fair hair and step off the eggshells upon which we gingerly trod in order to prevent a Pettebrew act of emotional devastation. We got to go to the school library and listen to the librarian, Mrs. Ragsdale, read us a wonderful story. Everyone loved her. She read us all the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books with amazing expression and clarity, and we all secretly wished she could be our mom and read us to sleep at night. She would generously display the pictures of the books, panning across our captivated faces. She read us Peter Rabbit, Dr. Seuss, and the Madelyn books. It was our once-a-week treat to have her enchant us with literature. Our library period included 20 minutes of story time and 10 minutes to select our books to check out. During this time Mrs. Pettebrew got a half-hour excursion to the teacher’s lounge. Today I like to picture that break for Mrs. I-Take-It-All-Back as a smarmy immersion into the secret room filled with heroin and barnyard animals to abuse.

Mrs. Ragsdale appeared to be very motherly and sweet. But beneath that, we learned, was a dark side. She was a violin strung way too tightly; a breakdown waiting to happen. Apparently all those cutesy stories and colorful illustrations took their toll, or perhaps it was just holiday stress, but that day, Mrs. Ragsdale lost it.

It was the day before Christmas vacation, and we were excited about being able to check out six books instead of the normal quota of two. The library was decorated with colorful construction paper chains and folded-down, gold spray-painted trees made out of old Readers Digest magazines. The windows were painted with candy canes and Santa faces. After we took our seats and Mrs. Pettebrew left the room, Mrs. Ragsdale approached the semi-circle without a book. We should have known that was trouble.

“Boys and girls, can anyone here tell me who wrote Peter Rabbit?

What? What was this, some kind of sick, holiday pop-quiz joke? This was story time. No one told us there’d be a test. I knew it was Beatrix Potter, or was it Beatrice Potter? The librarian had this hideous, teeth-gnashing look on her face that indicated she would not accept just the last name as an answer. This was not, after all, Jeopardy! Or was it? I feared that if I said Beatrix and it was Beatrice, something really, really bad would happen, so I remained silent, as did everyone else. We also failed the test on the author of the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books.

“NO ONE can tell me the author of the books I’ve read to you all year long? Don’t you know that it’ll be important to you later in life to know the title AND AUTHOR so you can have sensible discussions about authors’ literary styles? This is great; this is JUST GREAT.” And off she went on a pencil-snapping tirade that included phrases such as, “your teacher thinks you’re so smart, but you’re not smart at all,” and “you’ll never become anything if you continue to be so stupid and not pay attention.”

Lady, we’re eight years old. We are paying attention. To the stories. Maybe if you’d warmed us up first by asking us who wrote the Dr. Seuss books, we’d have the nerve to say “Beatrix” to the Peter Rabbit question. So you have a master’s degree in library science and are working in a library where books are classified not by Library of Congress, not by Dewey Decimal, but by dots and lines that were Magic Markered onto the spines. One dot: easy reading for first graders. One line: advanced reading for first graders. Two dots: easy reading for second graders, and so on. It’s not our fault that your career landed in quicksand. And besides, since when did the Harvard Review dedicate an issue to Betty McDonald, the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle authoress? And I must have missed that NPR segment, “John Updike Critiques Green Eggs and Ham.” Not to mention the Madelyn’s Rescue series on Masterpiece Theatre.

Ragsdale’s rant went on past the 20-minute mark, and finally Vickie Mansour, the class bookworm, meekly raised her hand.

“WHAT!” snapped Mrs. Ragsdale, the poster girl for hypertension.

Fearfully, Vickie whimpered, “I think it’s time to get our books now.”

Just as she said that, Mrs. Pettebrew quietly crept into the room, but the librarian didn’t see her. Mrs. P. had a cautious, if not horrified look on her face. Her thought bubble was: Oh God, I hope she’s not armed!

“Don’t you tell me what it’s time to do, missy. That’s for me to decide, and no one’s moving until I’m damned good and ready to dismiss you!”

We gasped. Mrs. Ragsdale said the D-word! She turned and saw Mrs. Pettebrew, who carefully came up to her, touched her arm gently and whispered something in her ear, which, in retrospect, I like to interpret as, “There’s a bucket of Valium in the teacher’s lounge. Go get yourself a handful. I’ll watch the kids now. And while you’re at it, butt ta teef and do your nails.”

The librarian ran from the room, weeping. We got extra time to select our two-dot and two-line books, but we never saw Mrs. Ragsdale again.

As for Mrs. Pettebrew, I recently Googled her, just to see if anyone else had written a story about or blogged her, but the only thing that came up was a listing of occupants of a cemetery in Tampa. A prestigious cemetery, of course. The one with the city’s founding fathers and Civil War heroes buried in it. She was 58 when she taught me, and this year marks the hundredth anniversary of her birth. The next time I’m in Tampa, I’ll stop by to pay my respects. I no longer have yellow hair to comb out, but I do think I’ll leave a nail clipper and a toothbrush on her headstone just so she’ll know I remember her.

And in case you’re wondering, there were no Google hits for Mrs. Ragsdale.

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