Only once during my elementary school days did I find myself in trouble with school authorities. The memory of that one unfortunate episode, and the recollection that I exhibited both unacceptable behavior and a bit of cowardice, has morphed through the years from fear to amusement.
From first grade on, my academic work and classroom behavior placed me in the upper half of my class. Now in the fifth grade, I enjoyed the benefits that usually accompany that position. I didn’t especially like the teacher personally — I considered her too harsh and egotistical, so unlike the two kind, soft-spoken ladies who had led our class of twelve students for the past four years. (In our small school, two classes were combined for one teacher – first/ second, third/fourth, and fifth/sixth.)
Reflecting today on those years in her class, I realize that Miss Watson was probably only forty years old – or maybe even younger. At the time, I thought she was ancient. She was a good teacher, at least in the academic realm. We learned our facts in arithmetic, geography and history, but the images I recall most vividly are her penetrating black eyes, her sharp chin and most of all her shrill voice that pierced the air whenever one of her charges strayed from her strict guidelines.
We looked forward to Thursdays, for on that day we enjoyed a real treat. Miss Florence Hawes, from the Weekday Bible School program taught our class one hour during the afternoon, just before the bell rang for school to be dismissed for the day.
Gentle and modest, she was the antithesis of Miss Watson. She smiled as she welcomed each of us by name and we felt warm and loved. Paying attention as she told a Bible story was easy. The words flowed like honey on hot pancakes, and left warm impressions on our young minds. One Thursday she taught us a hymn – “O, Worship the King, All Glorious Above!” She read the words before we tried to sing, and explained the metaphors for God’s power. The phrase “ whose robe is the light” created a vivid picture in my mind. When she drew an arc on the blackboard – “whose canopy space,” I felt the majesty of a God surrounded by daylight under the cover of his unlimited space.
But when we sang the hymn, Miss Watson’s shrill, off-key tones rose above the muted sounds of twenty-four uncertain children’s voices. She gave it her all on the lines “His chariots of wrath the deep thunderclouds form, and dark is His path on the wings of the storm.” I lost the image of a powerful God. Miss Watson’s wrath and the darkness of her personality wriggled their way into my mind. I looked at Mary Lee, my best friend, and our eyes met. I knew she was thinking the same thing! And we both began to giggle. The more I tried to control myself, the more the giggles burst forth. I felt the eyes of every student on me, and when the hymn ended, Miss Watson’s eyes blazed with a fury I had not seen before. The giggles stopped immediately.
Miss Hawes ignored our outburst and closed her lesson with a lovely prayer, thanking God for “the opportunity to teach these precious boys and girls” before she departed. Miss Watson reviewed her homework assignment, and then announced that she would see Mary Jo and Mary Lee after school. I was distraught. What would she do to us? What if we missed the bus? How would we get home?
When the room was cleared, she looked at us with angry eyes. A hint of disappointment sounded in her voice as she began her brief lecture.
“I’m surprised and disappointed in both of you,” she said. “Such behavior is not like you. You should be ashamed to laugh at a guest in our class room. Next Thursday, before Miss Hawes begins her lesson, you will apologize to her. Do you understand?”
We nodded, silently, with our heads bowed.
During the week we discussed our dilemma. It hurt us to have Miss Hawes think we were laughing at her when the object of our derision was Miss Watson. But did we dare confess the truth, and look forward to Miss Watson for the rest of the year – and next year in sixth grade?
Miss Watson remembered her decree, and took us outside the class room to meet Miss Hawes when she arrived. “These girls have something to say to you,” she announced.
Miss Hawes smiled, put her arm around each of us, and said, expectantly, “Yes? What is it, girls?”
I felt like a traitor and a coward combined, as I mumbled, “We’re sorry we were rude to you last week .”
Miss Hawes laughed and pulled us closer to her. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I remember what it’s like to get the giggles! You just can’t stop! I was once a little girl, you know.”
Somehow, I think she really understood.