Blogmas Day 16: Fourthward Thinking

Wow here we are again late at night, nearing midnight with me wearing a face mask. You didn't need to know that part, but I tend to be an oversharer. So today I thought I would do something kind of different to celebrate us being 2/3 of the way through Blogmas. Typing that it seems unreal--Christmas is only 8 days away. And for those of you that celebrate Hanukkah, that's officially started now. What I'm trying to say is the holidays are creeping up on us and Blogmas is nearly drawing to a close. So in memorandum, I've decided to post something I wrote for my Creative Nonfiction class that I took this past semester. This piece is about my fourth grade teacher and it's something I'm really proud of. The other piece I really worked on in that class was much more cathartic and is incredibly personal, so I'm keeping that one more sacred for now. I'm thinking though that as a finale to Blogmas I might post it, depending on how y'all feel about this one. Speaking of which...

Fourthward Thinking
            My fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Moore, definitely studied Machiavelli at some point in her life. She was the perfect embodiment of the notion that “it is better to be feared than loved.” She held her head above the disdain of elementary school students as careened the halls in her stark white tennis shoes, her mauve-tinted glasses attempting to distract from her severe lazy eye. Before Mrs. Moore and I had ever met, I was already primed to fear her, as the older kids on the bus told me stories about her that rivaled horror movies and monsters under the bed. When we finally did cross paths--the year before I was enrolled in her class--she overheard me say “Oh my God” in passing conversation. She loudly corrected me in front of my friends.
“Don’t ever say ‘Oh my God’; say ‘Oh my!’” The command seemed out of the place in my liberal public school, but I spluttered an apology nonetheless, my cheeks enflamed with embarrassment as she shuffled past.
            That next August I remember bargaining with God as my mom drove me to school for Open House: the day students find out what teacher they’ll have for the upcoming year and parents can sign up to join the PTA. I promised Him I would “never, ever blow off my math homework again” in exchange for any teacher other than Mrs. Moore, who in addition to correcting my phraseology the year prior had a reputation for making her students cry. You can imagine my ten-year-old disappointment when I found out God hadn’t held up His end of the bargain; maybe He really was upset that I had used His name in vain the year before, and this was my penance.
            Mrs. Moore was a big believer in ornamentation. While most teachers adorned their walls with motivational posters and their shelves with ceramic trinkets, she decorated her classroom with dead marine animals in jars and violently realistic posters of the American Indian Wars. The most gaudy of these decorations was the taxidermy deer head mounted on a plaque by the dry erase whiteboard. Occasionally she’d hang her purse on one of the deer’s antlers or decorate its nose with a red sticker to resemble Rudolph at Christmastime. That was as carefree and whimsical as Mrs. Moore got.
            Her eccentric style did not just stop at her classroom décor. Sometimes she’d surprise us with a bizarre new vest or hat. One time in particular, the class went on a field trip to the Kennedy Center to attend a performance by the National Symphony Orchestra; we were all instructed to “look nice.” Mrs. Moore’s personal definition of looking nice was her usual garb—a button-down shirt with pastel pinstripes paired with khaki pants—but today she accessorized the ensemble with a sunhat that had a life-sized stuffed vulture perched on the wide brim. Imagine the type of hat one might wear to the Kentucky Derby, and then add a huge bird of prey. That was Mrs. Moore’s chosen aesthetic.
            In contrast, I wore dark blue jeans and a long-sleeved shirt featuring a design of Mickey Mouse printed on the front. Now I can’t remember if I forgot entirely about the dress code, or if jeans and Mickey Mouse was my naïve definition of “looking nice.” Either way Mrs. Moore was not impressed by my choice of wardrobe. She pulled me aside and said in her trademark condescending tone, “That’s not an appropriate outfit, Lauren. The president comes here all the time, and I can guarantee he doesn’t wear jeans.” I nodded and timidly shuffled back in line, but in my head all I could think was well, Mrs. Moore, I can guarantee he doesn’t wear dead birds on his head, either.
            When Mrs. Moore talked to you one-on-one like that, she was almost always correcting you for some minute wrongdoing. She’d catch your attention by snapping and hissing “eye contact,” as she stiffly formed a V with her index and middle fingers, pointing first at her own two eyes and then yours. Her critiques ranged from “don’t call him names” to “no whistling”; the latter I know from experience, as I had to sit out during recess for an entire week because I was caught whistling in the lunch line. In retrospect, this need for complete control was probably a direct result of her empty-nest syndrome: as she made sure to mention at least once a week, the youngest of her three sons had started his freshman year of college that August prior. With no impressionable kids sitting at her dinner table or neglecting their curfews, she redirected her stern nature to the classroom. We were not only her students but also her pseudo-offspring, meaning we got slammed with a double dose of discipline.
            Among her other glimmering qualities, Mrs. Moore had no patience for forgetfulness. Our homework on the first day of school was to write down and memorize our parents’ daytime telephone numbers. This was because every time we forgot to complete an assignment, we were required to use Mrs. Moore’s desk phone to call either our mom or dad and inform them of our negligence.
Of course fourth grade was the age at which I had the absolute worst memory; thinking back on it now I even shock myself as to how I could be so forgetful. There were multiple instances in which I would fail to complete major school projects, only to be informed that they were due as I entered the classroom empty-handed, seeing all my classmates comparing book reports and science experiments. Needless to say, I was required to bother my mom at work almost every morning for the majority of the year.  For the first few weeks, she would just sigh through the phone and say, “Okay, Lauren, just try to remember tomorrow.” But once the cold weather started to kick in and I was still neglecting to write down my assignments, she started to lose patience just as Mrs. Moore had.
On what had to have been the twentieth time I called my mom to tell her I had forgotten to do yet another math worksheet, I felt tears forming as I picked up the receiver. It wasn’t that I was purposefully not doing my schoolwork, it’s just that more pressing matters would arise at home that pushed the assignments from my mind. To be honest though, when I say, “more pressing matters at home,” I really just mean marathons of Full House on TV.
Trying to steady my breath, I impatiently awaited my mom’s trademark, “Thank you for calling The Washington Post, this is Lynne.” By the time she answered, I was sobbing before she could even begin to tell me how disappointed she was. Choking on my tears and snot as my voice heaved a meek apology, Mrs. Moore stopped class and came over to where I was standing. I felt a hand on the small of my back, and I was sure she was going to say something comforting. Given her track record, though, I don’t know why I was surprised when she instead told me to go into the hallway until I could compose myself. On my way out the door, she made sure to call across the classroom, “Let this be a lesson, Lauren; every time you get home remember this moment and check your homework folder!” Her comment was accompanied by my classmates’ snickering and truly evil thoughts resounding in my head.
            Eventually as the end of the year approached, Mrs. Moore’s expectations had been drilled into our ten-year-old brains; she actually had a good handle on our motley crew of troublemakers, kiss-asses, and those that fell in-between. But it seemed as though there was always room for improvement. Once it got warm enough for us to start playing outside again, she informed us all that we needed to learn a lesson in personal hygiene. Some people may say it’s inappropriate for a teacher to tell her students they collectively smell bed, but Mrs. Moore wasn’t just any teacher. She could get away with things like that, and she did. I can vividly remember standing in a silent, single-file line (because Mrs. Moore would have nothing less) waiting to come inside after recess. She took one whiff of us and asked if anyone in the class wore deodorant. When no hands were raised, she marched us back to the classroom and instructed us to all retrieve our daily planners as we found our seats. Mrs. Moore scrawled on the whiteboard “I will purchase deodorant for my son/daughter”; underneath this line of script she drew an X indicating space for a signature.
            “Everyone, copy this into your planner and have your parents sign it when you get home,” she barked, reaching in her huge purse to retrieve a warm can of Diet Coke, as was her routine in the early afternoon (she drank a warm Diet Coke in the afternoon and a carton of warm buttermilk in the morning, both pulled from the depths of her seemingly bottomless bag). As we all hurried to reproduce the sentence, she continued, “I want all of your parents to buy you deodorant tonight; I’ll be checking for their signatures tomorrow, as well as a receipt. It’s about time you all start to take care of yourselves.” I’m sure my parents would’ve been surprised had it have been any other teacher that assigned such a peculiar task, but at that point they too were used to the way Mrs. Moore did things. She was the captain of a tight ship and she would only tolerate respectful, intelligent, and pleasant-smelling sailors.
            Now, I won’t lie and say that I think about Mrs. Moore often. She’s not a recurring character in the film reel constantly playing in my head. It’s usually when I’m discussing my elementary school years—which are seldom a topic of conversation—that I’ll remember her. I’ll say something along the lines of “my fourth grade teacher was deranged, I swear” as I gain control of my giggling to tell one of the funnier anecdotes that comes to mind. The only other times I’ll think of Mrs. Moore is when I catch myself behaving in a way that she conditioned. When I apologize to my Christian friends after I let an “Oh my God” slip into conversation. When I show up underdressed to a party or family get-together. When I forgot to do the reading for class. When I’m buying a new deodorant at Target and my eye is drawn to Dove’s Original Powder Fresh, which was the exact product my mom bought me when I was ten, thanks to Mrs. Moore’s prompting. It’s only in those little moments that I remember how she started to mold me and so many other young people into respectable adults, and it’s then that I’m actually thankful for her influence. She expected ten year olds to behave as though we were already grown, and while maybe that’s expecting a bit much, she forced us to mature in the best ways. She trained us to behave with dignity while still allowing us to find joy in childish endeavors. She’d never tell us we couldn’t play kickball, but she did tell us we couldn’t cry if we were on the losing team.
With the changing face of discipline in the classroom, the modern elementary school would classify Mrs. Moore as a sadist, as they give children stickers to keep them from asking questions adults can’t answer. In order to reach benchmarks and receive funding, public schools nowadays force information down the throats of students only to be regurgitated on standardized tests. But even as today’s ten year olds fill their heads with baseless facts as they watch these empty accolades amass on their permanent record, they won’t learn to be accountable like we did. Maybe I can’t tell you the function of a plant cell’s chlorophyll, but I can take responsibility for myself. So in a weird way, I commend Mrs. Moore and wouldn’t change any of the harsh words she directed my way. I maybe could’ve done without the tears shed and the days suspended from the playground, but I’ll take what I can get.

Anyways, I hope you enjoyed reading some of my more "highbrow" writing and you'll tune in tomorrow for my usual drivel. Let me know in comments below or via Twitter (@asauerpatchkid) if you'd like more of this stuff! Have a good night guys!

"Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself." -John Dewey



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